One Halloween, many, many years ago, my grandfather built a haunted house in his and my grandmother’s back yard. Not technically a house, mind you, but a maze, a labyrinth twisting this way and that, filled with any ghoulish thing that popped in his head. I was young, maybe three years old, and I have a very limited memory of it. One thing I do remember, distinctly, is a scarecrow he, or someone, made for this homegrown spookfest.
This scarecrow wore bib-overalls (most likely an old pair of my grandfather’s) and was stuffed with hay. It wore old shoes, gloves, and a hat. I don’t remember its face, if it was a painted burlap sack or a mask. This scarecrow sat at the entrance to the enclosed maze. The details of it are sketchy for me, true, but I remember it scared the bejesus out of me.
It wasn’t long after my grandfather’s haunted endeavors, a matter of a few years, that I saw Dark Night of the Scarecrow for the first time. Naturally, scarecrows became an object of fascination for me.
In a rural Southern town, young Marylee Williams is the only friend of Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake of L.A. Law and Darkman). Bubba is a grown man with the mind of a child, and Marylee is the one person, besides Bubba’s mother, who doesn’t ridicule or torment him. The local postman, Otis (Charles Durning of The Sting and O Brother, Where Art Thou?), obsesses over the friendship between the girl and Bubba, constantly warning that no good can come of it.
Otis’ naysaying seems to be of merit when he learns that Bubba has attacked Marylee and she is in critical condition in the hospital. When he and his lynch mob (all of his friends) learn that Marylee has died, they are determined to make sure Bubba gets a taste of justice.
The mob hunts Bubba down to his home where they discover him hiding in a field in the disguise of a scarecrow. They waste no time in unleashing the brutal justice of their firearms. When they have finished, news comes over the CB that Marylee is not only alive and expected to live, but she owes a debt of thanks to Bubba Ritter: he saved her from a dog attack.
Otis and the others quickly stage the scene to make it look like self-defense. When they are tried for murder, naturally they are not punished thanks to lies and the good ol’ boy way of doing things.
Just when life seems to be getting back to normal for Otis and his friends, with all the nasty murder business behind them, they slowly suspect their troubles are just beginning. The hot-headed vigilantes begin to die off one by one, and a mysterious scarecrow heralds their ultimate demise.
First broadcast back in 1981, Dark Night of the Scarecrow was a CBS made-for-TV movie. Do not let that prejudice you against this gem. It is one of the three best scarecrow horror films ever made (Scarecrows and Husk round out the triptych). It’s a great movie that utilizes suspense over gore. A perennial favorite in my household, as a bonus it can be viewed by some of the younger members of the audience as well.