By Dr. Abner Mality

I have a confession to make. Yes, another one. Your old pal Dr. Mality didn't grow up in Transylvania or the English moors. Nope, he didn't even grow up in a typical American city. I spent most of the first part of my life living deep in the rural Midwest, surrounded by miles of rolling corn fields and placid farmland. Not exactly the kind of image that inspires terror, is it?

On the other hand, maybe it is. The peaceful countryside has its terrors, too and sometimes the coziest little towns hide the darkest secrets. I never had a real urge to wander the endless rows of corn at night when the wind rustled the stalks and who knew what lurked within. There have been some writers and creators who have realized the potential for horror in farmland settings. And who hasn't seen an image of a raggedy old scarecrow as a kid and repressed a bit of a shudder?

In 1981, a made-for-TV movie appeared on the CBS network that burned its way into the brains of a lot of viewers. This modest and low budget film struck such a chord that the film has now earned the reputation of a classic. That film was entitled "Dark Night of the Scarecrow" and it was one of the last and greatest of the made for TV horror films that have sadly fallen by the wayside.

There used to be a lot of very cool and scary horror films made for the "Big 3" networks back when those networks ruled the roost. Those films didn't boast huge budgets and they couldn't feature buckets of blood due to being in prime-time TV. But a lot of them were very effective...think of "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark", "Killdozer", "Moon of the Wolf" and of course, my all-time favorites, "The Night Stalker" and "The Night Strangler". By 1980, the TV landscape was already starting to change, as cable was just beginning to challenge the traditional network scheme of things. The made-for-TV movies would either be gone or radically changed by the middle of the decade. But some still remained. "Dark Night of the Scarecrow" was certainly one of these and I now intend to shine a light on this spooky rural fear-fest.

The movie was originally intended to be released theatrically, but when CBS Television read the script written by J.D. Feigelson and Butler Handcock, they decided to buy it and produce it as a made-for-TV movie. In a great contrast to the flood of "slasher" movies coming out in the early 80's, "Dark Night of the Scarecrow" featured little actual gore, even in its original form. It relied more on atmospherics and suggestion for its shocks. While grindhouse theater owners probably felt the script was too tame, TV embraced the more restrained story-telling.

To direct the film, CBS made an unorthodox choice: horror writer Frank De Filitta, whose movie "Audrey Rose" had emerged as something of a cult classic. That story also relied a great deal on nuance, but "Scarecrow" was quite a different beast. "Dark Night..." marked De Filitta's only excusion into directing and his straightforward but spooky touch makes one wish that he had went further into the horror movie business.

The cast boasted only one real "name" actor, Charles Durning, who played the evil postman Otis Hazelrigg. Several of the other actors like Larry Drake and Lane Smith would go on to more notoriety, but they were virtual unknowns in 1981. Other cast members remained in obscurity, yet "Dark Night of the Scarecrow" was very well-acted all around and as you watch the film, you forget you are watching actors. That's the mark of a good movie.

Now let's jump right into the meat of the story. WARNING: Spoilers do follow, it's impossible to avoid them in any detailed recounting of the story. But the last chilling scene I will leave for you to discover...

We are introduced to a small town of the rural South. We never learn the name of the town or are exactly sure of when the story takes place. It could be 1981, or it could be earlier...some aspects of the town seem out of date,,,but not massively so.

On a warm summer''s day, "Bubba" Ritter is playing with his best friend, Marylee Williams. Marylee is a beautiful young girl, but Bubba is a much older man who is obviously mentally challenged. He seems to have the mentality of a five or six year old boy. Even though she is much younger, Marylee is the boss of this relationship. The two sing songs, make flower chains and cavort around the countryside in innocent fun. But evil eyes are watching the pair.

The eyes belong to one Otis Hazelrigg, the sole postal employee of the nameless town. As played by the excellent Charles Durning, Hazelrigg is a sweaty, overbearing busybody who is never seen without his trademark postal gear. He wears it like the robes of an emperor, never letting the community forget how important he is. Otis is disturbed by Marylee's friendship with the simple-minded Bubba and feels it is unnatural. He communicates that feeling to his three cronies...farmer Harliss Hocker, overweight Philby the granary owner and perpetually nervous car mechanic Skeeter Norris. They all agree that it just isn't right for a grown man to play games with a little girl.

One day, Marylee wants to sneak into a neighbor's yard through their fence. Nervous Bubba doesn't feel comfortable with that action, but doesn't stop his friend from doing so. Soon he hears a growl and a scream from inside the fenced in yard...Marylee is being menaced by a fierce and angry guard dog. The dog leaps at the little girl...and Bubba interjects himself!

Pretty soon there is a frantic knocking at the door of the Williams house. Mrs. Williams opens up and almost faints dead away. A bloody and unconscious Marylee is being held by a disturbed and equally bloody Bubba Ritter. "Bubba didn't do it!" shrieks the hapless man with a child's mind. Mrs Williams screams, Bubba drops Marylee and runs off into the countryside.

When Hazelrigg and his friends hear over the radio that Marylee has been severely injured and Bubba is on the loose, they make up their minds. Egged on by the mean-spirited Otis, they grab their guns and form a posse to bring Bubba some country justice. They track him down to the farmland owned by Bubba's mother Mrs. Ritter, a lonely widow who has done her best to take care of her mentally handicapped son. She knows that Bubba wil be a scapegoat for the community.  She needs to buy him some time until cooler heads prevail. She knows her house will be searched. She looks out to the fields surrounding her home...and gets an idea.

Hazelrigg and company march onto Mrs. Ritter's property and are promptly scolded away by the righteous old woman. They head to the fields, where Skeeter and Philby admit they may not be doing the right thing. But then Hazelrigg notices the lonesome scarecrow hanging on a wooden frame in the middle of the field. Acting on a hunch, he takes a close look at the raggedy scarecrow...and sees terrified human eyes staring out of the holes in the scarecrow's mask! Bubba is hiding in the straw man's clothes.

The die is cast. The men line up in front of the scarecrow with guns cocked and aimed. As Bubba whimpers inside the get-up, gunshots explode and the scarecrow is riddled with a barrage of bullets. After a long period of shooting, the men drop their weapons. Skeeter and Philby are aghast at what they've done. Hocker is stone faced and Hazelrigg seems only mildly put out. As the men stand contemplating their deed, they hear a sudden bulletin over the radio they've brought with them. Marylee Williams is not dead...she will recover. In fact, she has already told her family that it was Bubba who saved her from the dog. He was a hero, not a monster. Hazelrigg and company have just shot to death an innocent man with the mind of a child. Hazelrigg walks up to the scarecrow and puts a pitchfork in its hands...a weapon. He swears the other men to silence. Their story is that Bubba went after them with the pitchfork.

That story is enough to get the men acquitted of any wrong-doing, much to the disgust of District Attorney Willock, who vows to keep pursuing the men. A grieving Mrs. Ritter is even more direct. After the verdicts are read, she announces to the courtroom "there's other kinds of justice than the law!"

That justice is not long in coming.  Soon, Mrs. Hocker asks husband Harliss when did he decide to put a scarecrow in his field? Hocker has done no such thing...a close inspection reveals that the scarecrow is identical to the one Bubba hid in. A nervous Hocker tells Hazelrigg and the others about it. Hazelrigg thinks that it might be either D.A. Willock or Mrs Ritter who put it up to try and scare them into doing something foolish. Skeeter is already starting to sweat, but Otis sternly tells the others to keep quiet. As long as they do that, the law has nothing on them.

That evening, Hocker hears noises in his barn, where he keeps his long broken wood chipper and other farm equipment. He thinks he sees a figure prowling around and enters the barn to investigate. He goes into the upper hayloft and is poking around bales of hay when the wood chipper turns on with a roar. Startled, Hocker stumbles and grabs onto a hanging electrical cord. As he hangs right over the mouth of the woodchipper, an electric shock sends him tumbling into the machine. We hear a scream and a huge buzz as if a large object has just gone through the machine.

Philby and Skeeter are scared out of their wits and come to Otis for help. Skeeter pleads that they should surrender to the police, but Hazelrigg isn't having any of that. He knows Hocker's death wasn't an accident, but thinks Willock or Mrs Ritter is behind a scare campaign to make them crack. He convinces the other two to stay quiet while he looks into the matter. He pays a visit to Mrs Ritter, who denies any involvement with the scarecrow but otherwise seems delighted that somebody is putting a fright into Hazelrigg. She also accuses the postman of having an unhealthy interest in Marylee himself.  When Otis confronts Marylee  at a Halloween dance, the girl tells him that she knows what he did to Bubba.

The next day, Philby spots the scarecrow just outside of his granary. Hazelrigg makes up his mind to visit Mrs Ritter at night and scare her into a confession. Sneaking into her house, he succeeds only too well...when he surprises her, she dies of a heart attack. Otis turns the gas in the house on and throws a match in it as he leaves, resulting in a huge explosion to conceal what he has done.

While this is going on, Philby is working alone at the granary when he hears a noise. He grabs a flashlight and a club and goes out to investigate. He sees something that terrifies him and causes him to flee in a panic. He runs inside an empty grain silo and locks the door behind him, believing this will protect him from whatever pursues him. Instead, he hears a motor start up...someone or something has turned on the grain conveyor and grain is now pouring into the silo. Philby, his heart already spasming, tries to open the door, only to find someone has wedged it shut. An avalanache of grain continues to fall, gradually covering him. He grabs his bottle of pills as a heart attack strikes but never manages to get the bottle open. We see a hand wave feebly and then go still while sticking out from the pile of grain.

Now there is no doubt that Bubba's killers are being stalked and dispatched. Plus, D.A. Willock is investigating the explosion at Mrs Ritter's house and coming to the conclusion that her death is no coincidence coming so close to the demise of Hocker and Philby. Extremely nervous before, Skeeter is now in an absolute delirious panic of fear and Hazelrigg almost has to beat him into a quiet state. Otis' latest theory is that Bubba never really died...somehow he survived and is getting revenge. To prove it, he proposes that he and Skeeter dig up Bubba's grave that night and reveal that there is no corpse in the coffin.

After a LOT of convincing, Otis and Skeeter make their way in the dead of night to the quiet cemetery where Bubba Ritter lies buried. After some hard work, Bubba's casket lies revealed. Hazelrigg is sure that the coffin will be empty...he bullies Skeeter into the opening the casket, which Norris reluctantly does. He gives a shriek of terror. "It's him! It's him!" The corpse of Bubba lies in the grave. Maybe the scarecrow is stalking them after all!

Skeeter goes into his worst panic yet. Suddenly Otis changes his tune. As soon as they put the dirt back in the grave, they will both go to the police and give themselves up. Skeeter calms down. Otis asks him to jump back in the grave to close the casket. As soon as Skeeter does so, the malevolent postman strikes his hapless accomplice in the head with a shovel using all his strength. Now there will be two bodies in the grave.

His nerves shot by the night's bloody deeds, Otis soothes himself with strong liquor. It is after midnight on Halloween day. He drives back to town, but sees a small, white figure dart in front of his car's headlights. It is Marylee Williams, running around in the darkness in her bedclothes. Drunk and disoriented, Otis decides to pursue the girl. He winds up sending his car into a ditch, but this doesn't deter him. With a bloody gash in his head, Hazelrigg staggers into the night, yelling "Marylee!". He is determined to kil the girl...or do even worse to her.

Otis pursues the girl into a pumpkin patch. As he closes in, he hears the roar of an engine. Someone has started a tractor in the field...a tractor dragging sharp discs behind it. Now Otis is the one pursued, as the tractor...driven by someone or something unknown...takes after him, its discs slicing the pumpkins of the field to shreds.

Well, the absolute end I will leave you to discover. It features one of the most chilling final scenes of any made-for-TV that makes you wonder about just who was really in charge of the scarecrow's revenge.

This was the perfect movie for a chilly October evening. Director de Filitta brought a very moody but understated style to "Dark Night of the Scarecrow". Today's horror films are so full of camera tricks and special effects, the viewer is reminded at all times that he's just watching a movie. With "Dark Night...", everything is unobtrusive and straightforward in style. That being said, the use of shadows, especially during the night scenes, is extremely effective. And a lot of credit should go to musical director Glenn Paxton, who adds his own layer of tension with a spooky score.

In addition, the acting is of uniformly high quality for a TV movies. Many TV movies of the period had a cheap, rushed feeling, but not this one. Many performances stand out, but none more so than Larry Drake as the simple-minded Bubba Ritter. Drake was later to win two Emmy awards for his portrayal of the developmentally disabled Benny on the "L.A. Law" TV show. His performance as Bubba here certainly helped to win him that role. Within seconds of seeing the large, rather scary looking Bubba, we know he is actually a child-like man and no threat to young Marylee. His fear and panic after the dog attacks Marylee is palpable.

Charles Durning delivered another one of his outstanding performances as Otis Hazelrigg. Durning communicates Hazelrigg's sleaziness in any number of minor but effective ways...a hand mopping sweat from his brow, the numerous insincere smiles he gives, the steely way he "hardens up" when he doesn't get his way. We get an amusing introduction to this character when he's caught sneaking a look at a porno magazine he's delivering to one of his customers. Otis becomes more and more murderous as the movie proceeds until he seems capable of any atrocity.

Drake and Durning dominate, but the other actors also do well. Tonya Crowe is beautiful and very effective as Marylee...unlike many child actors, she hits exactly the right note. Jocelyn Brando brings some down-home pathos and dignity to the part of Mrs. can tell this is a good woman who has had to endure many hard things in her life. Lane Smith, who would go on to greater fame later, plays Harless Hocker in an early TV role.

"Dark Night of the Scarecrow" must have stuck in minds of other viewers the way it did in mine. Over the years, many recalled seeing this TV movie. If they didn't remember all of the plot nuances, they certainly recalled that chilling final scene, as well as the morbid deaths. And the image of a killer scarecrow stalking the fields on a moonlit night is an archetypal one...something universal and eternal. The makers of this movie surely tapped into that image.

So the next time you think you might see a ragged figure shambling in the pumpkin field in the dead of night, don't be too afraid. Chances are, it's just Bubba Ritter, on his way to Marylee's house for some fun and games...