Monday, May 27, 2013

The Devil You Know: Frank De Felitta's DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW

One man can make an effort but it takes a group to make real change. Unfortunately, if that group is dag stupid and hateful, that same power can blossom into some pretty heinous things. Mob rules often with the innocent suffering as a result. But the real question is what happens when the victimizers become the victims? This is the premise of the 1981 Made-for-TV classic Dark Night of the Scarecrow. Originally airing on CBS, this amazing cult film is finally making its first time appearance on DVD this year courtesy of VCI.

The film opens up with Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake) playing with Marylee Williams(Tonya Crow) in a field of flowers. Nothing unusual about these two young kids except that Bubba is physically 36 years old but mentally still very much a little boy. Their interactions are innocent and sweet with Marylee giving him a peck on the cheek after giving him a homemade lei. But there are predators among the prey, with postman and resident creep Otis (Charles Durning) watching them with binoculars. A chaste kiss sends him off the handles, acting less like a concerned adult and more like a jealous lover.

Things go from bad to worse though when Marylee sneaks into someone's backyard and gets attacked by their vicious doberman. When Bubba carries her bloody and bruised body to her parents, all hell breaks loose. Otis immediately rounds up a gang of equally dumb, hateful rednecks to take “justice” in their own hands and lynch poor innocent Bubba. Who needs the police? Despite the efforts of Bubba's goodhearted and strong mother (Jocelyn Brando), the gun-toting crew of Darwin's lost children end up finding the petrified man-child dressed up as a scarecrow, hiding. After pumping a mentally challenged, weeping man full of bullets, they soon find out that Marylee is alive. Not only that, but if it hadn't been for Bubba jumping in at the last minute, she would have been dead.

Despite the efforts of earnest D.A. Sam Willock (Tom Taylor), the whole gang get away with murder literally due to the old chestnut of “lack of evidence.” Momma Ritter flips out and invokes what is the film's tag line, “There is other justice in this world besides the Law.” That particular fruit ripens fast, as soon the boys starting seeing the figure of a bloody scarecrow at their homes and workplaces. It's only a matter of time before Bubba's revenge is put into action.

Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a brilliant film that manages to tie that fine line between subtle and ballsy in one fell swoop. Since this was made-for-TV, there is a natural lack of any R-rated action but what you do not see in grue is more than made up for with tone. The ominous figure of the Scarecrow cannot hold a candle to the fatal ignorance of the mob, especially Otis. In fact the way the latter is handled is pitch-perfect, thanks to a combination of great writing, even better direction and a fine performance from veteran character actor Charles Durning. One of the spookiest shots in the whole film is Otis peering through a paper skull window cling, looking in on a group of children bobbing for apples and running off. It happens for all of a split second but it is an unforgettable image. It's made all the more creepy given that it immediately follows a scene between him and Momma Ritter where she makes the comment, “You stay away from that little girl. I've seen the way you look at her.” What we have here is this toxic soul who is projecting his demons and desires onto the hulking innocent figure of Bubba.

The rest of the cast is uniformly terrific, with Drake being especially memorable with the handful of minutes he is onscreen. It definitely set a precedent for the role he became famous for years later as mentally challenged Benny on the popular TV drama L.A. LAW. Everything about this film is tight with an exceptional directing job from noted author (AUDREY ROSE) Frank de Felitta and stellar writing courtesy of J.D. Feigelson. Given how TV movies were regarded back when this aired as being second to third tier compared to their big theatrically distributed brothers, it's pretty awe inspiring how damn good this film really is.

Major kudos to VCI for releasing this cult classic, complete with director's and writer's commentary, plus the world premier promotional spot that aired on CBS. If you love Southern Gothic tales and great film making, then you can do no wrong with watching this movie.