Director Frank De Felitta’s Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981) is not only one of the all-time-great made-for-TV horror films; it is also a leading example of a Halloween-related movie whose plot centers on an angry mob scene. A quartet of overzealous rednecks–led by the malevolent mailman Otis Hazelrigg (Charles Durning–veer off into vigilantism following the sheriff’s call for a posse of volunteers. With rifles in hand and bloodhounds on leash, Otis’s splinter group tracks down the mentally-challenged gentle giant Bubba Ritter, who has been mistakenly accused of murdering his young playmate Marylee (turns out, her non-mortal wounds were inflicted by a neighbor’s dog). This is not the first time the foursome has harassed Bubba, but it will be the last, as the innocent man suffers a firing-squad-style execution after his hiding as a scarecrow in an open field proves an inadequate disguise.
The scapegoating and hasty persecution of a perceived Other is a basic enough premise. What makes Dark Night of the Scarecrow so noteworthy is its transplanting of a Universal monster movie into a rural Southern setting. The “death” of Marylee hearkens back to the creature’s accidental drowning of the girl Maria in Frankenstein, an act that sets the local villagers off on a torch-and-pitchfork-wielding warpath. The creature and Maria had been tossing flowers in a lake; in Scarecrow, Bubba and Marylee are first seen picking flowers in a field. Bubba’s carrying of Marylee in his arms following the mauling also recalls the image of the creature in Frankenstein sweeping the unfortunate Maria up into its arms (and the subsequent image of Maria’s father toting her lifeless body).
Dark Night of the Scarecrow forms an intriguing variant on the slasher film, complete with inventive death scenes (involving a wood chipper, a grain silo, and a plow in a pumpkin patch) and crafted ambiguity regarding the identity of the killer (e.g., Bubba’s grieving mother? Bubba himself, returned as a revenant hellbent on vengeance?). The film ostensibly inaugurates the killer-scarecrow subgenre of horror. It also sports a creepy autumnal atmosphere that has not dissipated after nearly four decades, and makes the film a worthy inclusion on annual Halloween season watch lists.