One of the challenges with older TV movies was making a movie scary while placating the network censors. This is a balancing act that Dark Night of the Scarecrow does memorably. The story of a childlike mentally disabled man who is wrongfully accused of the death of his young friend, and who is himself killed by hateful vigilantes who escape traditional justice, is a classic TV terror favorite.
Farm horror is great for two reasons: obviously there are many terrible ways to die on a farm, what with all the dangerous equipment, but there’s also the fact that people in a farming community are thought to have “everyman” looks, so a movie like this is a great place for character actors to thrive. If you’ve ever appreciated Charles Durning, you will do so here, because as the leader of the group of killers he makes you love to hate him.
The scene that stands out most in my mind is when fellow character actor (and for purposes of this movie, fellow killer) Lane Smith dies in his own brush machine. We see him get sucked into the machine which shreds plant material, but we don’t see any blood; we get instead a quick cut to the next morning as a dollop of red fruit preserves is dished onto Durning’s clean, white, empty plate. Because Durning’s character lives in a boardinghouse, there are other people around the breakfast table discussing Smith’s mysterious death, but Durning just keeps asking for more food with no concern for his fallen buddy.
Later in the film, when Durning finally meets his fate after being chased by a big piece of farm equipment, we see pumpkins in a field being smashed underneath the vehicle like so many human heads. It makes you appreciate the creativity that has to be employed to set a mood when the filmmaker doesn’t have buckets of blood at his disposal.
Although we never know the true identity of the killers’ killer, or whether anything supernatural is afoot, it’s not ambiguous enough for frustration. As exploitation lite, where the message of “don’t unfairly judge the mentally handicapped” is combined with the bloodlust of “make those bastards pay,” Dark Night of the Scarecrow is super fun. If you have kids, this is a perfect movie to scare the pants off of them this Halloween season. Or treat the kid in you to a night of fright with a trip back in time to a simpler kind of horror.