Color, 1995, 85m.
Directed by Jeff Burr
Starring Elizabeth Barondes, John Mese, Stephen Root, Bruce Glover, Gary Lockwood, Dirk Blocker, John Hawkes, Cristi Harris, Martine Beswick
Olive Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
One of the many worthwhile horror films completely bulldozed during the genre's theatrical collapse in the early 1990s, Night of the Scarecrow is one of those titles fans tend to run across by accident and wonder why no one else ever seems to know about it. Denied a theatrical release due to distributor woes and the rapidly cannibalizing of movie screens for indie fare like this, the film squeaked out onto VHS in 1996 from Republic Pictures with fairly striking cover art; however, that wasn't enough as it quickly drifted into obscurity, existing solely through word of mouth and fan swaps at conventions. Though it doesn't try to overhaul the horror genre in any way at all, it's certainly worthy of attention as it delivers plenty of grotesque, gruesome thrills, all packed with a surprising cast and some stylish directorial panache.
In the small town of Hanford, "a special place for special people," something seems a bit amiss with the imposing scarecrow guarding the area's precious, lucrative crops. Claire (Barondes), the daughter of the town's no-nonsense mayor (Lockwood), teams up with (and gets into bed with) a new construction worker in town, Dillon (Mese), to tick off her dad when she gets back in town, but more pressing is reckless teen punk named Danny (future Oscar nominee Hawkes, years before The Sessions), who accidentally plows up a protective stone marker near that creepy scarecrow. Soon people are getting bumped off left and right in a variety of gory and possibly supernatural methods, with the eccentric local priest (played by Diamonds Are Forever's Glover) showing up at Claire's doorstep after getting his mouth bloodily stitched shut in church. As it turns out, the scarecrow is tied to a very dark, nasty secret in the town's history, and the murders may not be as random as they first appear.
An enthusiastic horror fan, director Jeff Burr would have probably become a major genre name had he gotten started a few years earlier. Unfortunately his big debut film, the perverse horror anthology The Offspring (a.k.a. From a Whisper to a Scream), was sabotaged by distributor issues and a confusing title change, and he soon found himself helming a couple of troubled sequels, Stepfather II and Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, both of which managed to find minor cult followings despite a slew of obstacles. By the time he helmed this film, Burr had already gone the video route with a couple of Puppet Master sequels, but he really gives it his all here to create an atmospheric, visually impressive scare yarn. Horror fans had already had their scare of killer scarecrow movies by this point, most notably the made-for-TV classic Dark Night of the Scarecrow (which shares a couple of similarities to this film beyond its title) and the 1988 gorefest Scarecrows, but this one justifies its existence by essentially delivering a raucous slasher film with enough supernatural elements to keep things interesting (like the scarecrow using straw to channel through his victims, either plunging through orifices or dragging them screaming to a nasty fate).
On top of that you have a solid score by Leatherface composer Jim Manzie and, of course, a very surprising cast. A very busy TV actor since his role as Poole in 2001: A Space Odyssey (not to mention Jacques Demy's underrated Model Shop), Lockwood is a suitably commanding but sinister presence, while Glover gets to ham it up in his big scene facing off against the scarecrow crucified over an altar. On top of that you also get a town sheriff played by a young Stephen Root, a year before his big break on NewsRadio and, of course, well before character actor immortality courtesy of Office Space and King of the Hill, among others. Dirk Blocker from Prince of Darkness and Poltergeist gets some solid screen time as well, while genre regulars Martine Beswick (a two-time James Bond girl who was also in the prologue of The Offspring) and John Lazar (Z-Man from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) make brief but welcome appearances as well, the latter in a pivotal flashback. However, for many the highlight of the film is the big scene with Hawkes and a young Cristi Harris, who supplies the requisite T&A the same year she appeared in Night of the Demons 2 (and would go on to appear on TV's Passions and Sunset Beach).
Considering Night of the Scarecrow's undeserved slide into darkness for nearly decades, its 2013 revival on Blu-ray and DVD from Olive Films comes as a welcome surprise and a chance to reevaluate a film never really seen in prime condition. Not surprisingly, the new HD transfer (shown off to particularly vivid effect on the Blu-ray with lots of gorgeous, saturated reds and blues in abundance) proves to be a major revelation compared to the murky videotape edition, and the DTS-HD stereo track supplies plenty of kick considering the film's budgetary limitations. As with fellow Republic '90s horror offering Ticks, this one comes tricked out with more extras than usual for the label, highlighted by a lively commentary track with Burr and moderator Daniel Griffith (best known for his Ballyhoo Pictures video extras). A familiar participant on discs for both his own films and those of other filmmakers (including a wide variety like The Name of the Game Is Kill!, The Visitor, and Sole Survivor), Burr's love for the genre shines through once again as he covers the making of the film from every angle imaginable. Among the highlights are his discussion of the original script (which had the scarecrow spitting out Freddy Krueger-style one liners), the participation of editor and future Grindhouse Releasing head Bob Murawski (right off his gigs for Army of Darkness and Hard Target), the film's apparently jinxed release history, the producers' aversion to even hearing the name of Dark Night of the Scarecrow, and his memories of the numerous cast members. Also included are a gallery of stills and storyboards (with additional Burr commentary) and the original promotional featurette for the film, sourced from VHS and featuring many members of the cast and crew offering enthusiastic sound bites about the "wild ride" they were making. Hopefully the second time around will be luckier for a film that deserves to be a regular Halloween favorite.
Reviewed on August 5, 2013.