It All Happens In The Dark

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“Did I ever show you how to play the chasing game?”

The Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)

I remember watching this as a child (my father dressed up as the titular scarecrow for Halloween a few years after this originally aired on television) and it frightened me then (as did the costume – hey, I was really young). Re-watching it for the first time in years now, I find it even more chilling than I remember. How often does that happen? Does that ever happen?

Bubba Ritter is a man in his thirties, but a child at mind and heart. He has a companion in young Marylee – and together they make up song and games and spend long afternoons making lei’s out of daisies. It is completely innocent.

However Charles Durning is angry because he is not the mailman on Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Also, he suspects Bubba is either perverted or dangerous. It is only a matter of time, he reckons, before something awful happens to Marylee. I’m not entirely sure why he thinks this, but he does, and he wants everyone else to think it, too. Instead of getting the Widow Sassafras her MediCare check on time, the mean old mailman is out in the field with binoculars spying on Bubba and Marylee. And frowning and looking menacing.

Well, no sooner than the mailman gets back into town and once again warns his friends that Bubba being a pal to Marylee is going to lead to trouble, than trouble strikes. Marylee goes sneaking into someones backyard through a loose board in a fence and a vicious attack dog appears and isn’t interested in any visitors. But Bubba busts through the fence – in a very impressive Hulk-like display of bravery and brawn and pulls Marylee out. But Marylee’s mother isn’t so impressed when Bubba turns up at the door with her daughter in his arms, unmoving and covered in blood, shouting “BUBBA DIDN’T DO IT!”

Spoiler: It is actually the lawn gnomes who are responsible.

The angry old mailman and his posse hear about this of course, and jumping into a truck they speed away faster than any mail has ever been delivered. Now, I am not sure exactly why but everyone is under the impression that Marylee is dead. Well, she isn’t. This part is important. Pay attention.

The mail mob (or mob of the mail) are always tormenting Bubba when something goes wrong in the town (crops failing or cattle mutilation, I’m guessing) so when Bubba comes running home to Mama Ritter in a hysterical state, she know just what is going down. So she and Bubba play “the hiding game.”

Did I mention the names of the mob yet? The mailman is Otis P. Hazelrigg, and his minions are Skeeter Norris, Philby and Harless Hocker. Yeah.

The Gestapo show up at the Ritter Farm and mama says she ain’t seen hide nor hair of Bubba. The Gestapo strangely enough do not believe this. Well, she isn’t about to let them in her house, where she proceeds to lock herself. (Maybe Bubba should have played the hiding game in there?)

Resourceful old revenge-mongers that they are, they brought blood hounds, and they track Bubba down to the farm’s field where Bubba is hiding dressed as a scarecrow. And since they don’t like him they shoot him good and dead. Just as the last bullet is fired, the radio in the truck pipes to life and everyone is informed – Gee, not only is Marylee not dead, but damn, Bubba saved her life. Well, hell. Good timing radio man.

So the mean old Otis, clever as he is, takes a pitchfork out of the back of the truck and places it in Bubba’s dead man’s grasp, and voila! They have a claim of self defense.

There are only a few things in this movie that I did find dated, and which the film cannot be faulted for, but which did all the same manage to take me out of the story – for example everyone, including the district attorney touch the pitchfork with their bare hands – it is marked as evidence but never bagged or handled with gloves. And this being the case, forensic evidence surely would have found the fingerprints of Otis on the handle. But I know C.S.I. wasn’t used the year this was made. Another instance, is when there is a house fire and it is ruled an accident without much poking into it. But these are minor complaints, and nothing that I feel is fair to hold against the film at all. But, they still were obvious reminders of what year this film was made and they did cause me to think – damn, I could have gotten away with murder then!

Anyway, the stupid town judge won’t listen to the district attorney who is obviously right and he lets the murderers off. Bubba’s mother (who I love) threatens them all with a cryptic “There’s other justice in this world besides the law” warning before she is thrown out of the courtroom.

Another thing that left me vaguely wondering, was that even though these men were “proven” innocent, they still did kill someone. And everyone in the town acts all cool and casual towards them as if nothing happened, treating them exactly the same. Wouldn’t that change your view of someone, just a little? What kind of small town is this? And why is the mailman hiding his drinking? He lives in a boarding house where he secrets booze, and at the Church Halloween party, the woman serving cider makes it a point to say to him, ‘Oh, you don’t drink do you’ and gives him a glass of the non-mixed cider. Are we supposed to infer that he is an alcoholic? Again, not something that really effects the story in any major way, I suppose, but it is in there and it makes me curious as to why.

So of course no one has bothered to tell Marylee that Bubba is dead, and her mother is surprised by how attached her daughter really was to Bubba. Had this woman ever even talked to her little girl before she was attacked by that dog? I knew Marylee and Bubba had a bond two minutes after the movie started. Does this woman know anything about her daughter, where she goes and with who? Would she hide Marylee in a scarecrow costume if the mailman was after her? Well, it turns out the mailman is after her, and that is why he hated Bubba so much – he seems to be a bit sweet on Marylee, and Bubba’s mother knows – she saw how he looked at the girl.

When Marylee makes her way to Bubba’s mother’s house – in the dead of night, in a nightgown – Bubba’s mother tries to explain to Marylee that Bubba is gone, but Marylee is certain this is not the case, and she does seem pretty convincing.

When a scarecrow appears in one of the murderer’s fields that he didn’t put there, everyone freaks out and doesn’t know what the hell is going on. So they all appeal to Otis, at the boarding house and Otis is all like WHAT ARE YOU DOING COMING HERE WE CAN’T BE SEEN TOGETHER, as if they weren’t already tried for murder and the whole town wasn’t aware. Otis says everyone needs to calm the damn down because it is probably just the district attorney trying to break them. Don’t worry, don’t worry, Otis says, now get up on out of here, it is time for my dinner.

Well, a murder later (or was it an unfortunate accident?) another scarecrow squatter, another murder (foul-play?) the above mentioned Halloween party, another murder (this is getting suspicious) some grave digging and yes! yet another murder and the suspicion has fallen on everyone – is it Bubba’s mother? Is it Marylee? Could it even be the mailman himself knocking everyone off to ensure they don’t go to the police with the truth? I wonder if it has anything to do with that whole “other justice in the world” thing from before.

I love the ending. I can’t imagine it having been done better. I love the plow pursuing its victim and slicing and spitting out the pumpkins in the pumpkin patch. I love the last shot, which brings it all full circle. And I love the score, which I haven’t yet mentioned! It is minimal, yet essential – like the Alien soundtrack crossed with the clinks and clanks of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre score, with a little of the Halloween theme thrown in. Really, really good stuff and very fitting.

I love how so many pivotal scenes took place during the day (and are possibly all the more sinister because of it). This movie is the definition of atmospheric – you can almost smell the Autumn-ness of it – the burning leaves, the cider, the rum on Otis’ breath.

And the scenes after the sun has set remind me so much of the nightscapes John Carpenter created in Halloween – the same gorgeous blues and blacks appear here. My favorite scene is the scene following the men having the charges against them dropped and we see them in a bar, celebrating, and the camera pulls back and out into the street, and the bar looks now so suddenly small and dim and lost – almost adrift – in the night, and the wind comes throwing itself down the street, ripping at leaves, tipping over trash cans and making the signs on the building swing. The wind in this movie is something that I especially remember from my childhood viewing, and something I again notice now. The wind seems to come out of nowhere, it seems to be a supernatural and malevolent element, that is roused after Bubba’s murder and too pursues the guilty men.

This is a real gem – not only do they not make horror like this anymore, but NEVER made for-TV-movies. This is being released on DVD on September 28th, so if you haven’t seen it yet you really owe it to yourself to check it out – or get a nice, shiny DISC to replace that old VHS clunker you have. And even Vincent Price has vouched for it! B+





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