Five bank robbing paramilitary mercenaries and war criminals steal three million dollars from Camp Pendleton and take two hostages, a pilot and his daughter. As the robbers fly toward Southern waters, one of the robbers steals the loot, and parachutes into a dark field. The remaining robbers land the plane, and head for a broken-down house. The house has a demonic history, which causes scarecrows guarding surrounding graves to become animate and slaughter all trespassers, dooming their victims to live on as scarecrows for all eternity.
Shot near Miami in 1985, Scarecrows may be one of the last great regional monster movies to emerge from the Sunshine State. Florida has a long and storied low-budget film history dating back to Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast (1963), and it was in this environment that the Cuban-born Wesley developed his debut feature. A horror fan since childhood, Wesley had already shot training films and documentaries while in the Army, and served as a cameraman on, among other things, the Miss Universe Pageants.
“I was sitting under an apple tree, contemplating the gravity of corn,” Wesley recalls. “What if, I mused, my iconic dark figure, my monster, was a scarecrow? Great, I like that hasn’t been overused. OK, to whom or what is the scarecrow a natural nemesis? Crows! From there, the broad strokes of the story just flowed.”
The story Wesley concocted is a dark blend of The Twilight Zone and Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort. Wesley was 27 years old when he developed the film’s outline, and was determined to direct a feature before he was 30. “Just prior to making Scarecrows, I was at a real low in my career,” he says. “Florida, where I was living at the time, had zip film work during the summer, so I had to take a real job-working as a still photographer for The Auto Trader. As much as I hated that, it was a blessing in disguise.”
That was because, it turned out, one of his Auto Trader assignments was snapping photos at a vintage car dealership owned by a colorful local celebrity named Ted Vernon. In addition to running his auto business, Vernon was well known in the Miami area as a boxer, professional wrestler, demolition derby driver and lead singer of his own 1950s tribute band. “He told me, ‘I’m writing a film,’ ” Vernon says of his early encounters with Wesley. “So he showed me the thing, and I said, ‘Let’s make a movie.’”
“We became buds,” Wesley says, “and one day while shootin’ the breeze, I shared my dream of making a horror film. He asked what the price tag on that dream was, and I said, with surprising confidence, ‘$150k.’ ‘No problem,’ was all he had to say, because with Ted, his word really is his bond. The following week. after signing a few documents, Ted walked me over to his Old-West-bank-style safe at his dealership, opened it up and started pulling out stacks of cash!” In exchange for bankrolling the production, Vernon received an executive producer credit, a part in the film and a role for his bulldog, Dax (who, in the film’s climax, is seen happily munching on the charred remains of his owner).
Armed with Vernon’s money, Wesley hired Hollywood-based screenwriter Richard Jefferies to turn his 40-page outline into a finished script. Wesley had met Jefferies in Los Angeles after reading Jefferies’ then-unproduced screenplay for The Vagrant. “We made a deal where he literally had to bring me cash to my doorstep,” says Jefferies. “He came out here and we worked on it a bit together. Bill had a conceptual idea, and told me that all of these people were birds. That’s a great way to sort of key in actors to behavior, but what does that mean conceptually to the movie? We had a whole discussion about, are these people birds or not?”
For his crew, Wesley pulled together a mix of Florida and California talent. Production manager and assistant director Barry Waldman had worked on the regionally produced Shallow Grave (1987) for producer Ralph Clemente, along with production designer Gary Roberts and art director Clifford Guest. Another key member of the production was Cami Winikoff, a film student at the University of Miami. “I had been trying to get a job on Miami Vice, which was the hot ticket in the city at the time,” says Winikoff, now president of Sobini Films. “I kept bothering someone there, and he finally said, ‘There’s this guy I met who’s making a film. Why don’t you go bug him?’ ” She met with Wesley, and quickly worked her way up from production assistant to co-producer.
Scarecrows owes much of its look and its reputation to two then-unknown crew members who were destined to go on to much larger projects: cinematographer Peter Deming and special
makeup artist Norman Cabrera. “Peter had only done a few films,” says Winikoff. “I picked him up at the airport. He was just a kid, too, and he looked like he was 12 at the time. I met him and he had a broken arm! But he was fantastic.” Deming, who had actually broken his fingers trying to push a stalled car out of a garage, had previously toiled on a number of short films. When he got the Scarecrows assignment, he was just finishing up an even better-known independent movie, Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle.
Aside from Vernon (who plays bald, bearded tough guy Corbin), the majority of the Scarecrows cast came from California. The pilot and his daughter were played by newcomers David James Campbell and Victoria Christian, while stage actress Kristina Sanborn appeared as the lone female bandit, Roxanne. TV vet Turner took on the role of Bert, while two of the film’s most memorable characters are played by Michael David Simms (as the intense Curry) and Richard Vidan (as the hulking, dim-witted Jack), who had both previously appeared in the ridiculous Hard Rock Zombies.
PRINCIPAL PHOTOGRAPHY/BEHIND THE SCENES
Lensing began in summer ’85 at an abandoned house near Davie, Florida, not too far from the Everglades Parkway (a.k.a. “Alligator Alley”), with the airplane interiors completed at the Ft. Lauderdale Airport. The novice director and his relatively green cast and crew soon found themselves battling the elements and their meager budget in much the same way the characters take on the murderous scarecrows.
“On the way to my very first day on the set, it hit me all of a sudden: there were 40 or more cast and crew members anticipating the arrival of their fearless leader me!-and I’d never done this before.” Wesley recalls. “That’s when I noticed that I had stopped breathing about five blocks ago. Long story short, when I arrived on set, I barricaded myself in a bathroom and it took Cami and the UPM, Barry Waldman, to get me out. But once I pulled off my first shot, I was in my element-like I had been directing all my life.”
Vidan’s first visit to the shooting site was equally memorable, but for different reasons. “I got out of the car and was getting ready to walk to the set, when suddenly I became aware of this intense pain around my ankles,” he says. “I looked down and my ankles were swarming with red fire ants. In horror, I was batting at them and swiping them off me, and thinking, ‘Is this an omen of things to come?’ And yes, it was.”
According to Vidan, in addition to the occasional alligator or bobcat spotted near the set, the crew also got up close and personal with a few thousand of Florida’s resident vampires-swamp-hardened mosquitoes that forced the cast and crew (already baking in the summer heat) to douse themselves in bug repellent every night. “It was horrible,” Winikoff adds. “I had to call the city to come and spray overhead for mosquitoes, because we were losing crew to bites. We were a couple of miles from the Everglades in the middle of a swamp in a condemned house, so the property wasn’t cared for. It was great for the film, but terrible for the crew.”
In fact, several of the Scarecrows team, including Wesley, wound up hospitalized during the production. “It was like fighting this little war,” says Norman Cabrera. “People were getting sick from getting bitten by mosquitoes. They were going down left and right, but we were like, ‘No matter what, we’ve got to finish this movie.’”
Wesley made the best of his remote location, filming most of the exteriors very close to the farmhouse. By shooting from multiple angles, he and Deming were able to create the impression that the “crows” are wandering through a vast field. “It looks like the characters are running around a lot of acreage, but it all happens within 40 feet,” Wesley says. “In that regard, the shoot was a breeze, like filming on a soundstage.”
The production was also beset by the usual low-budget distractions. Deming says a scaffold was electrified one night, and Vidan recounts that he fell through the house’s roof and wrenched his hip. “At the time, we were all just kids, and we didn’t know what we were doing,” says Winikoff. “Every day was like this adventure. When I look back on it, it was definitely one of the harder shoots I’ve been on. We didn’t have the money to throw at any of these difficulties, so every problem was a big one that we had to throw creativity at.”
One of the group came up with a particularly memorable solution for a streetlight on a nearby power pole that kept showing up in the dailies. When the city wouldn’t or couldn’t shut off the light, Roberts took matters into his own hands. “He unholstered his .45 yes, the man walked around set with a big loaded gun and took that vexing light out with one clean shot,” Wesley reveals.
“He was very enthusiastic and very prepared,” Deming says of Wesley. “By the time I showed up, I believe he had storyboarded the entire film, and done it very well. He just did his homework about what he could get away with and could afford.”
The dailies looked good, but the film hit a major financial snag halfway into filming. “It was a slight budget miscalculation on my part, which today, shooting on relatively affordable hi-def, would not happen,” Wesley says. “Anyway, the ship was sinking fast, so I turned to Cami, who was already in rear-end-saving mode. Practically overnight, she raised about $75,000 to keep us afloat through the rest of production. I still bow to her.”
This caused some friction with Vernon, who has slightly less fond memories of his Scarecrows experience than Wesley. “It dragged out a long time,” he recalls, adding that he clashed with Wesley over several issues throughout the production. “Finally, we got started, and he used up all the money about halfway into it. Then it became ugly. I just said, ‘Screw it,’ and closed the doors. I was done. But we got it finished.”
Still a teenager at the time, Cabrera went from making masks in the bedroom of his mother’s house to spearheading the FX on his first low-budget film thanks to a chance encounter at a Miami comic book store. “The manager of the store gave me Norman’s number,” Wesley says. “Now, why I consider this to be, dare I say, a supernatural chance occurrence is because I had never been to a comic book store before that day or since. My walking in there that fateful day can only be explained by a line from Scarecrows-I must’ve been possessed by demonic demons.'”
“I had just graduated from high school,” says Cabrera, now part of the team at Spectral Motion. “My room was full of my masks. It was kind of like my shop. Wesley was really impressed with my stuff, and he was like, ‘How would you like to work on a movie?’ I said, ‘Wow, it sounds amazing. Where do I sign?’”
Despite his lack of experience, Cabrera designed some memorably ghoulish monsters. “Bill basically told me to come up with something really scary,” he says. “He kept referencing John Carpenter’s Halloween, in the sense that the mask is really simple but very frightening. He kept using the term ‘vacuous.’ To him, it’s more frightening for a creature to have a very simple face like that, because you don’t really know what it’s thinking.”
“It was uncharted territory for me,” says Cabrera. “I was just a beginner, and I was kind of learning as I was going along. I had $2,000 for materials, which is ridiculous, and I was getting a very small amount as a salary. I was making maybe a tiny bit more than at my previous job, which was selling stereos.”
The film’s biggest effect involves the zombified Bert arriving back at the farmhouse and receiving a brutal beating at the hands of his former cohorts. After tossing him around the room, they discover that he has not only been gutted, but also stuffed with straw and money. Afterward, Vernon’s character dismembers him with a machete. It was all very low-budget stuff but Bill and I really wanted to do stuff that would stand out and hopefully be on par with the many Makeup FX movies that were coming out at the time. I had no ‘crew’. I made everything myself. It was challenging but I was having fun figuring out how to do stuff as I went along. Bill would sometimes get free help from the local university but they didn’t have any experience. For Bert, I cast the actor’s head and hands and recreated them in latex. The body was just foam padding since it was under the jumpsuit. I made a chest appliance that had the huge gash that was in the shape of an inverted cross. Bill had the great idea in his script that the scarecrows would stuff Bert with not just straw but the money he had stolen. It’s a pretty sick scene when the others figure out there’s money in Bert’s corpse and they’re compelled to take it out and squeegee the blood off.
The completed film is a study in efficient storytelling that’s unusual for the genre. The backstory of the bank robbery and hijacking is disposed of with a few lines of exposition. There’s no romantic subplot, and really no central character. Although Christian is the nominal ingenue, she has very little to do in the film until the end (a fact that, Vidan says, bothered the actress a bit). Top-billed Vernon has very few lines * of dialogue (“He kept me as quiet as he could,” the actor says of Wesley), but ultimately emerges as Scarecrows’ only heroic character. Released just as the genre was being overtaken by horror/comedies, Scarecrows is relatively devoid of overt humor, although the dialogue does elicit some subtle laughs. “God to Bert,” Vernon says at one point while searching for Turner’s character. “Your birthday has been cancelled.” Later, Vidan aptly sums up the film’s atmosphere (and the balmy, insect-infested set) when he quips, “If I were a crow, I’d be somewhere else.”
There’s never any explanation of exactly who or what the scarecrows are. A photo of surly hillbillies in the house and a mailbox marked “Fowler” provide a couple of hints one of the Fowlers, like one of the scarecrows, is missing a hand-but the script is tantalizingly vague. One character speculates that they may have died and parachuted into hell, which Winikoff and Jefferies agree was the basic idea. “We talked about that, but to me you either decide you’re going to conceptually reveal that, or you’re not,” says Jefferies. “We just said we were going to tell it from their point of view. If you’re in hell, do you know you’re in hell? Maybe not. You’re just there, so it’s a perpetual nightmare. To me, good horror movies take the audience into a nightmare, and nightmares rarely reveal their external logic.”
With Scarecrows in the can, Wesley and Winikoff decamped to California to complete postproduction on the film. Eventually, they sold the distribution rights to Manson International Pictures. Unfortunately, ratings problems forced cuts to the movie. Since Manson hadn’t the budget to go through the appeals process, they simply cut out all the FX footage-eight minutes worth to get the rating. “Don’t see the R version,” Wesley warns. “It was created just to get the film out to a couple of theaters so they could tell the video distributor it had a theatrical release. We’re seeing much less gore on screen now than we did 10 years ago. The MPAA is becoming more and more conservative.”