Combustible Celluloid
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With: Charles Durning, Robert F. Lyons, Claude Earl Jones, Lane Smith, Tonya Crowe, Larry Drake, Jocelyn Brando, Tom Taylor, Richard McKenzie, Ivy Jones, James Tartan, Ed Call, John Steadman, Dave Adams, Ivy Bethune
Written by: J.D. Feigelson, based on a story by J.D. Feigelson, Butler Handcock
Directed by: Frank De Felitta
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 96
Date: 10/24/1981

Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Fields of Screams

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This well-made TV movie debuted on CBS on October 24, 1981, just in time for Halloween. While theatrical releases were getting gorier, writer J.D. Feigelson and director Frank De Felitta used the small screen format to not show the horrors in the story, and thus made them all the more frightening. It was so popular that CBS made it a regular Halloween staple for years to come. It may seem old fashioned today, but this very quality makes it surprisingly effective.

It begins as the developmentally disabled Bubba (Larry Drake) happily plays with a ten year-old girl, Marylee (Tonya Crowe) in their small town home. Unfortunately, a team of four local rednecks -- led by postman Otis P. Hazelrigg (Charles Durning) -- doesn't like this relationship much; they assume that Bubba will someday attack Marylee. One day an angry dog does just that and Bubba takes the blame for it. Bubba hides by dressing himself up as a scarecrow, but the vengeful foursome finds him and shoots him dead.

The truth comes out: that Marylee was not actually killed and that Bubba was innocent, but the rednecks are tried and released. Unfortunately for them, a mysterious scarecrow begins appearing in their fields, followed closely by their own gruesome deaths. Thankfully De Felitta never shows any actual killer stalking around wearing a scarecrow mask. He suggests a killer with shadows and noises, but it could be a ghost, or just the imaginations of the jumpy killers. Thankfully, the movie serves up a terrific ending which betrays nothing.

For a small screen production, the movie manages a terrific autumn/Halloween atmosphere, using the dry, brittle cornfields and even a holiday costume party for mood. It also takes its time with its revenge plot; it keeps the same slow, tense pace throughout to allow time to digest each particular revenge killing and to watch the survivors sweat. The performances, led by future Oscar nominee Durning, are excellent. Larry Drake was so convincing as Bubba that it led to a long-term job as Benny Stulwicz on "L.A. Law." Little Tonya Crowe grew up to win a role on the TV series "Knots Landing." Small town hick Lane Smith went on to a rich career as a character actor, including his role as Daily Planet editor Perry White on "Lois and Clark." Director De Felitta had worked in television before writing the horror novels Audrey Rose and The Entity; he adapted the screenplays for both.

VCI Entertainment released the DVD, and it's one of their best so far. It comes with a writer and director commentary track, 5.1 surround sound, optional English and Spanish subtitles, and the original CBS promo (which I must have seen as a kid). Best of all are the animated "cornfield" VCI logo and the quotes on the box cover, which come from the likes of Vincent Price, Ray Bradbury and director Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator).

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