Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981) Retrospective

SUMMARY
In a small town in the Deep South, Charles Eliot “Bubba” Ritter, a large but gentle mentally challenged man, befriends young Marylee Williams. Some of the townspeople are upset by the closeness between Marylee and Bubba, and the brooding, mean-spirited postman Otis Hazelrigg is the worst. When Marylee is mauled by a vicious dog and lies unconscious at a doctor’s office, Otis promptly assumes that Bubba has murdered (and likely raped) her even though Bubba saved her life. Otis and three friends – gas station attendant Skeeter Norris and farmer-cousins Philby and Harliss Hocker – form a lynch mob. Bubba’s mother disguises him as a scarecrow and posts him in a nearby field to wait for the drama to cool down. The bloodhounds sniff Bubba out, and all four vigilantes empty multiple rounds from their guns, killing him. Afterwards, they discover that Marylee is in fact alive, thanks to Bubba, whom they have just murdered. Acting fast, Otis places a pitchfork in Bubba’s lifeless hands to make it appear as if he were attacking them with a weapon. The vigilantes are subsequently released because of lack of evidence against them (and blatant perjury by Otis) when the murder is brought to court.

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Marylee, who has recovered from the attack, sneaks out of her room at night and goes over to the Ritter house looking for Bubba. Mrs. Ritter cannot bring herself to tell Marylee the truth and instead tells her that Bubba has gone away where no one can hurt him. Marylee runs out of the house to look for Bubba and Mrs. Ritter goes after her. She finds Marylee sitting in the field where Bubba had been killed singing a favorite song of hers and Bubba’s, and she calmly tells Mrs. Ritter that Bubba isn’t gone, only hiding.

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A day later, Harliss finds a scarecrow in his fields like the one Bubba was hidden in; there is no indication of who put it there. Otis suspects the district attorney of putting it there to rattle the four of them and tells the others to keep calm and do nothing. In the evening, the figure disappears, and Harliss hears activity in his barn. He is investigating up in the loft when a wood chipper below starts of its own accord. Startled, he topples over into the machine and is killed. Since the wood chipper had not run out of gasoline after Harliss had been killed but had been switched off, Otis, Philby and Skeeter suspect that Harliss’ death was not accidental. Otis goes to Mrs. Ritter’s and obliquely accuses her of having engineered this supposed accident; she denies involvement, but says that other agencies will punish her son’s murderers. She also implies that Otis is a pedophile because of his intense interest in Marylee, saying “I see how you look at that little girl.” which causes him to run off.

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At the local church’s Halloween party while playing hide-and-seek with the other children, Marylee is confronted by Otis, who tries to get her to tell him that Mrs. Ritter is behind the recent events. Instead, she tells him that she knows what he and his friends did to Bubba and runs from him. Otis chases after her but is stopped by a security guard, who tells him to go back to the party.

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The scarecrow soon reappears in Philby’s field, and that night Otis breaks into Mrs. Ritter’s house. Trying to stop what he sees as the next stage of her plot, he shocks her so badly with his sudden appearance in her home that she suffers a fatal heart attack. To cover his tracks, Otis starts a gas leak which results in an explosion that destroys the house. While everyone else believes the explosion was an accident, the district attorney is suspicious.

The next night, Philby is disturbed by a commotion in his hog pen; while checking it out, mysterious occurrences make him panic and try to flee in his car, which refuses to start. When he gets out to check the motor, heavy footsteps are heard; he turns and sees something (unseen by the audience) which terrifies him. He is pursued across his property and takes refuge in a grain silo, shutting the door behind him. A conveyor belt feeding into the building is switched on. Philby, unable to open the now-locked door of the silo, is buried in the resulting avalanche of grain and suffocates.

The next day, upon learning from Otis of Philby’s death, Skeeter is ready to turn himself in rather than face any portended wrath. Otis remains convinced that recent occurrences are a hoax arranged to avenge Bubba’s murder and that Bubba himself is still alive. That night he and Skeeter dig up Bubba’s grave, ostensibly to prove that the corpse is not there. Skeeter opens the coffin to reveal that the corpse is in fact there and in panic tries to flee. Otis chases after and stops him, promising to go along with whatever Skeeter decides to do. They return to the grave to refill it, but while Skeeter is down in the grave closing the coffin lid, Otis decides then to protect himself, kills Skeeter by smashing his skull with a shovel, and fills in the grave with Skeeter inside it.

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Driving home in an intoxicated state, Otis sees Marylee alone in the middle of the road. Pursuing her, he crashes his van and chases her on foot into a pumpkin patch. He has just caught her and accused her of masterminding the scarecrow murders when a plowing machine nearby starts up of its own accord. Otis bolts, with the machine chasing him, and he collides with the same scarecrow that appeared to his accomplices. It is holding the pitchfork that the murderers had planted on Bubba’s corpse, and Otis has been impaled on the tines. He collapses and dies, only realizing the truth at the moment of his death. Marylee, who has been hiding in the pumpkin patch, hears footsteps approaching; she looks up and smiles to see the scarecrow looking down at her. It bends down, presenting her with a flower, and she says “Thank you, Bubba”. Marylee then innocently tells him that she has a new game to teach him, called “the chasing game.”

For those lucky few who were able to catch the film on television back on the 24th of October, 1981, Dark Night of the Scarecrow left a long-lasting impression. The score composed by Glenn Paxton is effective from the first moment the film’s title rolls on-screen to the closing credits. Directed by Frank De Felitta (Audrey Rose) and championed by writer/creator J.D. Feigelson, the film was a Wizan TV production, and dominated the ratings war on that dark fall night. It then re-aired a few times and began its slow descent into that void of lost socks. Years later, when Beta and VHS gave birth to the video rental market it received a second lease on life, and found a new fan base who had not previously caught it on TV. Tragically, overwhelmed by a tidal wave of new and old horror movies never before seen (now hitting video), it was often overlooked. Receiving a limited release on VHS by Key Video and Platinum Productions, the tapes enjoy a rich afterlife on the collectible market with few found in mint condition. A still sealed copy of the Key Video release has been known to fetch upwards of $200 to $300 dollars or more depending on who wants it and how badly. Even the rare TV press kit for the film has been reported to fetch upwards of $150 on the secondary market, if you can even find one.

Because the story was a classic. When I was first offered the opportunity to direct it, I turned it down without even reading it. When I finally did read it, I found it to be a brilliant work, a veritable masterpiece of occult art, so I immediately contacted the author, J.D. Feigelson, and arranged a meeting. My concern was budget and schedule. Having made a number of TV movies, I knew from experience that low budgets and tight shooting schedules are hazards I must avoid. But the material I had was extraordinary. But could I do justice to this fine work, considering all the limitations? I made the decision to do it, not an easy job, but one accomplished by a great team of actors, and a crew that gave their all to its doing. Basically, it was an outdoor shoot in sweltering summer heat. The picture came in on budget and schedule, and opened at the WGA theater to good attendance and good applause at its conclusion. – Frank De Felitta (Director Dark Night of the Scarecrow)

Dark Night of the Scarecrow writer J.D. Feigelson interview
Dark Night of the Scarecrow writer J.D. Feigelson interview

Interview with creator J.D. Feigelson

How was your script for Dark Night chosen for production, and how did you come up with the idea for the story and then sell the idea to CBS?
J.D. Feigelson: It started out long before CBS was even involved. It goes way back to The Windsplitter (1971) which was a ’70s motorcycle Easy Rider type of thing. I made the mistake of trying to get in on that phenomenon too late; Tobe Hooper was in it, Jim Siedow was in it – he plays the father that’s where they met. Jim did a lot of commercials for my company, so that’s how I knew him. Anyway, Tobe made a picture called Eggshells and both of us were very disappointed with what happened afterwards, and we were talking one day about trying to come up with something real quick and we both had talked about doing a horror movie. We went in separate directions and he ended up coming up with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and I came up with Scarecrow he was able to develop his as a feature. My partners and I tried to do it that way, but we just couldn’t do it. At the time I was working with an attorney who had connections with Gaylord Entertainment. They optioned it out to California where the head of the company sent it to CBS. They passed on it. Gaylord optioned it again, and resubmitted it to CBS where it was turned down again. I suggested we do it as a feature, but they had lost faith in it. A little time went by and I knew one of the directors of development at CBS, so I called her up I said, ‘I can’t believe you turned down Dark Night of the Scarecrow’ I was that egotistical, I thought it was that good. She said the head of production at CBS doesn’t think it’s for us. ‘I said ‘Has anybody read it?’ I had a feeling they just read the one-paragraph cover and I said I would guess it goes something like this  ‘scarecrow comes to life and terrorizes a rural community. She said that’s close’ I said I wouldn’t make it either.

The Windsplitter (1971)

The Windsplitter (1971)
J.D. Feigelson: That would be a silly movie. That’s not what it’s about. I said, it’s about a lot of things, it’s a morality play. Please for our sake, both of us, read it, because if we don’t make this picture, we both are gonna lose.’ She said let me think about it. I got a call later – “Your right! Your right! This is great! It was greenlit after that.

The film has often been compared to those great “revenge from the grave” tales that were popular in EC Comics. Had you grown up a fan of those comic books?
J.D. Feigelson: I certainly was a fan of the EC Comics. VAULT OF HORROR, TALES FROM THE CRYPT, etc. And I’m sure they influenced me in horror in general, but not in any certain story. I would say that I was more influenced by the last days of radio drama. In particular “Intersanctum.” It had many stories based on the idea that the main character got away with some terrible deed and it came back to haunt him. I was also influenced by the original version of the movie—THE THING.

How much of your original script was changed for the film, and how well did it do once aired?
J.D. Feigelson: A friend of mine brought me to Joe Wizan, who was an executive producer, who built the production company. Frank DeFelitta was a friend of his and came in to direct, bless his heart, I owe a lot to Frank because he shot it word for word,  Dark Night of the Scarecrow from both scene for scene. He was totally loyal to the script. You can actually sit down with the script and follow it with the movie. A sidebar is that a couple of weeks before we aired CBS lost faith in it. Didn’t put any advertising money out there. There was a cartoon-like sketch ad in TV Guide for that week, and they ran it as a Halloween movie because they thought it was the spot for it. It took the night. They did a 38 share which is huge it was roughly 38 million people. They ran it again and again. TBS picked it up many years later and ran it six years in a row as their Halloween movie. Because of that, I did a script and a movie for them. I did Red Water (2003), which was at the time the highest rated TV cable movie ever made. That was because Scarecrow did so well.

Charles Durning is really amazing as the contemptible Mr. Hazelrigg. It was mentioned during the commentary that he wasn’t initially thrilled with this role but that “he certainly feels differently now.”
J.D. Feigelson: Has Mr. Durning responded to the cult following this picture has garnered? I have mentioned to Charles from time to time about how wonderful the fans think he is in DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW. As you know he is a veteran of many, many movies and an Oscar nominee. He certainly is appreciative but I don’t think he is as amazed at its acceptance as I am.

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How many days did you have to shoot the film?
J.D. Feigelson: We had eighteen days to shoot. Actually, we lost a full day of principal photography because of fires near our location. So really the picture was shot in seventeen days, and still we got all we wanted because of the terrific work of our director Frank De Felitta. There was a day of second unit photography on the sound stage where additional shots were done including the scarecrow coming to life.

Was the film originally written to be a made for TV movie, and is this why you avoided the use of gore?
J.D. Feigelson: My Original intent and script for Dark Night of the Scarecrow was to be filmed as an independent feature. Two partners and I had a commercial studio in Houston, Texas and that’s where the idea was formed. Unfortunately, we were unable to raise the money, and about the same time the script had been given to a production company in LA. It was taken to CBS as a Movie of the Week. What most people believe is that because of the emphasis on suspense, atmosphere, and scare rather than gore it had been written for TV.  Not so. It just happened that it worked for TV and was shot virtually intact.

The reason it was sold to television was that it didn’t have a lot of violence in the script.  My theory is that you can go two directions in horror: anticipation and fear or gore and revulsion.  And I think that most people like fear, deep down in their hearts.  You can go to a slaughterhouse if you want revulsion.  Plus, with fear, you don’t have to develop anything [special effects-wise].  But to develop…really something scary, it takes a lot of creative thought to contemplate about what really scares people.  And it’s all based on anticipation.

When you were first coming up with this, did you have the mindset that “I want to keep the killer a mystery?  I don’t want the audience to know till the very end?”  Do you think the mystery was just as important?
J.D. Feigelson: I think the silliest horror movies are the ones where you see the monster the most.  Monsters, when you get a really good look at them are kind of silly.  They really are.  They move really slow or they’re not really very smart.  To me, the scariest movies are the ones like the original version of The Thing.  You never see that till the end of the movie.  That movie just scared the crap out of me.  And Alien, scared the crap out of me.  Those are the movies that scared me because you didn’t see them and you didn’t want the person [in the movie] to take that extra peak around the corner.  You know, at the end of Alien, it’s just a big thing with a long tail and claws.  It’s not nearly as scary as it was before you saw it.

There was a scene added back into the movie at the very end that clearly established the nature of the one getting revenge. A single action on the harvester involving the gears shifting.  I didn’t notice that hadn’t been in the movie before and was added back in until listening to the commentary. But I personally don’t think it was needed.  I thought it took away a little from the mystery. Were you an advocate of that decision?
J.D. Feigelson: I’ll tell you why we put it in.  Because [director] Frank [De Felitta] and I were talking.  And in the original script… a lot of people kept asking, who was driving the tractor?  They didn’t listen to the dialogue well enough to see that all the hints are given there [about who’s driving the tractor]. In fact, at the grave scene, Skeeter (Robert F. Lyons) says that if [Bubba’s] in the coffin, that don’t leave nobody but his spirit. And a lot of people didn’t catch it, so they were wondering, “who’s in the tractor, who’s in the tractor?”

Tell us about the amazingly creepy score for the film? Did you have final approval on it?
J.D. Feigelson: I agree that the score for Dark Night is a huge part of the film’s atmosphere. I was not involved with the score. It was in the domain of the director Frank De Felitta. He had worked with composer Glenn Paxton before, and assured me that his score would be phenomenal. It was. When I first heard it, I was overjoyed, but it must be attributed to composer Glenn Paxton.

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How many scarecrows were used in filming?
J.D. Feigelson: There were actually two working scarecrows used in the filming. One was a full-sized straw filled scarecrow. The other was an identical scarecrow suit that a stunt man or actor could get into when needed.

I understand that a scarecrow’s head from the film is on display in a museum in Port Arthur, Texas. Is this correct, and can you tell us more about it?
J.D. Feigelson: There is a world-class museum in Port Arthur, Texas which among other things has a scarecrow costume. Needless to say it draws attention.

What is it like to be known as the father of sorts to the killer scarecrow subgenre?
J.D. Feigelson: Funny you ask that. When I first got the idea of doing this picture, I did as much research as I could to see if there had been any scarecrow horror films. I could not find any. Only the Disney series Dr. Syn and an episode of Thriller. But neither of these really were monsters. It always seemed strange to me that Universal never created a scarecrow with all the monsters they developed. Father of the scarecrow? Why not.

I understand you were in charge of casting for the film. How and where did you discover Larry Drake for the lead role one of the test stills of the scarecrow of Bubba, and how did Charles Durning become attached to the film?
J.D. Feigelson: Actually, I was not in charge of casting. That was the domain of CBS and the executive producer Joe Wizan. The movie was cast by casting director Lynn Stalmaster. I lobbied for Larry after I had seen him in a student film. I thought he was perfect for the role and went to bat for him. After seeing the short film, they agreed. Charles Durning’s casting was a preference of CBS. Actually, when I tried earlier to make the movie as an independent feature, I had asked my friend character actor Strother Martin to play Otis. He agreed and in fact worked with me giving lines to Otis that Strother had come up with. Strother passed away before the film was sold to CBS. They recommended Charles Durning, and I agree that he made a terrific but different Otis. Charles is usually seen in jolly roles and it is to his credit as a great actor that he created the sensationally evil where Larry Drake actually wore the and duplicitous role of Otis P. Hazelrigg.

You built and designed the scarecrow for the film, correct? What influenced you most when coming up with the look?
J.D. Feigelson: Yes, I designed the scarecrow. There were minor modifications to him before he was finished. For example, I had put a gnarly nose on him, but later rethought and removed it after looking at still tests. The art director at our studio, Bill Griffin, actually rendered the scarecrow effigy from my original sketches. My influences for the look were a wrapped mummy, a medieval executioner’s mask, and even a victim’s execution hood.

I recall one interesting thing that happened during the halfway mark of the filming. We discovered that we didn’t have a scarecrow, and the schedule called for its appearance the next day. The art director tried to create one, but it was too Disney-like, not at all scary. Finally, it took the writer, J.D. Feigelson to bend to the task. And he created a wonderful scarecrow that audiences can now see and enjoy. – Frank De Felitta (Director Dark Night of the Scarecrow)

How does Scarecrow differ from other horror films and remains timeless?
J.D. Feigelson: How does the Scarecrow differ from others? Well first of all, I think he differs from other monsters because he’s not the monster, Otis P. Hazelrigg is. How does he differ from the subsequent plethora of screen scarecrows? He’s simple. All the others seem to be very detailed and art directed versions of the Bubba Scarecrow. We decided to make the Bubba Scarecrow as simple as possible since he would have been the thrown together effigy made by a simple farmer, not an art director.

Do you think a remake in the same style would fly today?
J.D. Feigelson: I think that most remakes don’t work.  The original movie [of a remake] was a product of the moment, a product of its time.  And over the years most remakes don’t work.  They try to make them work, but the first thing they have going against them is that you know the story, you know how it ends.

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I bet if “Scarecrow “were ever remade, considering that all of your actors were mostly over 30 or 40, and established talents, in order to get “Scarecrow ” made today, I can almost guarantee that most or all of the characters would be under 25 and all hard-bodies and boobs.
J.D. Feigelson: Oh absolutely, absolutely.  And we’d had a couple of inquiries from people probing to get the rights to do a remake.  We realized that if there is to be a remake, we wouldn’t have anything to do with it, my partner (Joe Wizan) and I.  We talked about and someone would have to produce a lot of money to do it because otherwise it just wouldn’t be worth it.  He said, “Well if they offer us a lot of money, we should do it!”  There will still always be the original.

What is your favorite horror film of all time?
J.D. Feigelson: I love so many, but if I were alone in an empty cell, chained to the wall and had only one horror movie to look at, I think it would be the original version of The Thing.

You have stated that your film is a morality tale. What lesson can be learned by watching Scarecrow?
J.D. Feigelson: The theme of Scarecrow is the power of innocent love. But the morality of it, certainly is the evil of bigotry and hatred of those who don’t fit into societies’ molds. Many times in our world seemingly evil people get off not paying the price of their deeds. But do they? As Bubba’s mother sagely observes: …there’s other justice in this world besides the law!’

Were you surprised by the number of young fans your film has attracted over the years?
J.D. Feigelson: I must admit that after some dozen fan conventions I am still amazed AND humbled by the huge interest and love for this film. When we made it I could not have imagined in my wildest dreams that it would be so honored. I have been introduced to a third generation of kids who have just found and love it.

How was the film received in 1981? When did you become aware that it had achieved ultimate horror achievement cult status?
J.D. Feigelson: In 1981 when the film was telecast it was considered just another piece of TV fluff. Nothing special. It occupied two hours of TV and served the sponsors. Goodbye. The few reviews were passive. Judith Crist ended her short review with: “…who’s doing the killings?…who cares.” And that was it. Until…the mid 1990’s when a friend showed me a book of interviews with horror celebrities. Among them the great Vincent Price. And would you believe-he’d seen the movie and was gushing about it. That was the first good review. God bless Vince.

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY

horrornews.net
trouble.city 
Horror Hound Issue # 14
Scary Monsters Magazine 081

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