Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a 1981 made-for-television suspense/horror film directed by veteran novelist Frank De Felitta (author of Audrey Rose) from a script by J.D. Feigelson. Feigelson’s intent had been to make an independent feature, but his script was bought by CBS for television; despite this, only minor changes were made to the original screenplay.
In a small town in the Deep South, “Bubba” Ritter (Larry Drake), a large but gentle mentally challenged man, befriends young Marylee Williams, (Tonya Crowe). Some of the townspeople are upset by the friendship between Marylee and Bubba, and the brooding, mean-spirited postman Otis Hazelrigg (Charles Durning) is the worst. When Marylee is almost killed by a vicious dog (Bubba saves her) and lies unconscious at a doctor’s office, Otis promptly assumes that Bubba has murdered (and likely raped) her. Otis and three friends – gas station attendant Skeeter Norris and farmer-cousins Philby and Harliss Hocker – form a lynch mob. They chase Bubba to his mother (Jocelyn Brando)’s house. She believes her son and they play “the Hiding Game”: disguising Bubba as a scarecrow and posting him in a nearby field to wait for the drama to cool down. Otis’ bloodhounds sniff Bubba out, however, and all four vigilantes empty multiple rounds from their guns into him, 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.
In court, Otis and his fellow vigilantes swear they acted in self-defense. Bubba’s mother denounces her son’s killers before the courtroom, stating, “You may think that you’re getting off free, but there’s other justice in this world, besides the law!” only to be ejected by the bailiff. Sam Willock, the local district attorney, does not believe the vigilantes’ self-defense story, but he cannot make the murder case stick due to a lack of witnesses. The vigilantes go free, but Sam calls after them: “Hazelrigg, just a minute. I want to tell you “men” one thing. I think you executed that man. And I promise you this; If I ever find a single shred of evidence, I’ll see every one of you on Death row!”
A day later, Harliss finds a scarecrow in his fields like the one Bubba was hidden in. Neither Harliss nor his wife can figure out how it got there as neither of them placed it. That evening, the scarecrow has disappeared. As he begins his walk up the steps to his front door, the wood chipper begins to run, and a light comes on in the barn. At first, Harliss believes Sam has invited himself over, walks to the barn, and shuts off the chipper. As he investigates, he climbs up the hayloft to confront what he now believes is the district attorney snooping around his barn. Walking on the support beam, he is startled as the wood chipper is mysteriously reactivated. Losing his balance, he grabs the cord of the light that is hanging in the barn. Screaming, he calls for his wife. No longer able to hang on as the sparks from the light shower him, he loses his grip on the light and dies after falling into the chipper.
The next morning, Skeeter and Philby inform Otis of Harliss’s mysterious death. The trio investigate, and find the thresher is no longer operational. Otis figures it must have run out of gas, but when its tank proves to be nearly full, he jumps to another conclusion. The next morning, he visits Mrs. Ritter and accuses her of killing his friend, although he cannot prove anything. She denies the charges, but says that all four of the men will get their just deserts promptly enough (and also implies that Otis is a pedophile).
When Philby discovers a scarecrow like the one Bubba was dressed as in his field, Otis acts fast. He breaks into Mrs. Ritter’s house as she sits before her lit fireplace and grabs her from behind, demanding that she explain what’s going on with the scarecrows. But she cannot tell him anything because she has suffered a heart attack as he tries to muffle her screams. To cover his tracks, Otis turns Mrs. Ritter’s gas stove on full, then walks out. As the gas reaches the fireplace the house explodes, again leaving nothing for Sam to use against Otis.
That night at his farm, Philby notices that the “Bubba” scarecrow (whom the viewer cannot see) in his field has gotten off its field-post, and is walking toward him. Panicking, Philby locks himself in a grain silo. The scarecrow jams the silo door, trapping Philby inside, and then turns on the conveyor belt feeding into the silo. Philby is buried in grain and perishes.
The next day, Skeeter is ready to turn himself in rather than face the scarecrow’s wrath. Yet Otis remains convinced that it’s all a hoax by somebody seeking to avenge the Ritter murders. To verify said theory, Otis and Skeeter break into the local cemetery that night. They dig up Bubba’s coffin and open it. Bubba is inside (again the viewers do not see the decomposing corpse). Otis has to wrestle Skeeter to stop him from fleeing in terror. They agree to fill the grave back in. But as Skeeter is nailing the coffin shut again, Otis kills him from behind by striking his head with a shovel. Otis re-buries both corpses and then drives off, back towards town.
En route home, Otis finds Marylee alone at roadside, and chases her into a pumpkin patch. He grabs Marylee and accuses her of masterminding the scarecrow murders. Suddenly, a combination payloader/plowing machine starts up nearby and chases Otis through the pumpkin patch, snapping its shovel and turning pumpkins to pulp. (It is strongly implied that no one is driving the plow.) As he flees, Otis accidentally runs into the Bubba-Scarecrow, still holding the pitchfork, on which Otis has just impaled himself. Otis sinks to his knees and points at the Scarecrow, who nods, before keeling over dead. The scarecrow walks off through the pumpkin patch and finds Marylee, to whom he hands a flower. She says: “Thank you, Bubba. You know what? Tomorrow, I think I’ll teach you a new game. Did I ever show you how to play the Chasing Game? It’s fun. You’ll love it. It’s sort of like playing tag…”
Note: “With its 1981 release “Dark Night of the Scarecrow” was the first feature length horror film with a scarecrow as its centerpiece. In the intervening years many have copied this image, but with “Dark Night of the Scarecrow” writer J.D. Feigelson is credited as creator of the entire “Killer Scarecrow” horror film sub-genre.” Aaron Crowell Managing Editor HorrorHound Magazine,
Charles Durning as Otis P. Hazelrigg
Robert F. Lyons as Skeeter Norris
Claude Earl Jones as Philby
Lane Smith as Harless Hocker
Tonya Crowe as Marylee Williams
Larry Drake as Bubba Ritter
Jocelyn Brando as Mrs. Ritter
Tom Taylor as D.A. Sam Willock
Richard McKenzie as Judge Henry
Ivy Jones as Mrs. Willams
James Tartan as Mr. Williams (as Jim Tartan)
Ed Call as Defense Attorney
Alice Nunn as Mrs. Bunch
John Steadman as Mr. Loomis