In a small country town, the innocent friendship between mentally-handicapped Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake) and a little girl called Mary-Lee Williams (Tonya Crowe) irks spiteful mailman Otis P. Hazelrigg (Charles Durning). He suspects something untoward is going on and his suspicions are seemingly confirmed one day when Bubba delivers Mary-Lee’s mauled body to her horrified mother. Leading a mob of his hot-headed friends, Otis corners Bubba in a cornfield where the terrified simpleton vainly disguises himself as a scarecrow. As he pleads innocence, Otis and the others shoot him dead. Whereupon a radio message reveals not only has Mary-Lee survived being mauled by a dog, but it was Otis who saved her life. Having rigged the crime scene to make it look like they were acting in self-defence, the vigilantes elude prosecution by the local district attorney. Then days later, each of the men are troubled by the sight of a ragged scarecrow watching from the cornfields…
Dark Night of the Scarecrow was among the last of the creepy television movies that had dominated the Seventies and were due to peter out during the ensuing decade. Steering the helm was Frank De Felitta, better known as the novelist behind such supernatural thrillers as Audrey Rose (1977) and The Entity (1981), who turned his hand to a fair few television films before branching disastrously onto the big screen with the Sharon Stone oddity Scissors (1991). By keeping things ambiguous for the most part and avoiding the potentially comical sight of a tottering, vengeful scarecrow, De Felitta ensured Dark Night… ranks among the more suspenseful TV chillers of its era.
While the mechanics are none too different from that of any slasher film (though with a “sins punished” theme that harkens back to EC comics), the ensuing events could just as easily be psychological as supernatural. At various points throughout the story, the malevolent force pursuing the guilty men looks likely to be the increasingly paranoid Otis eager to cover his tracks, a child driven insane by the loss of her only friend, or a genuine spectral avenger. Even though the climax seemingly provides an easy answer, it still comes down to how one interprets the closing scene. De Felitta’s taut, economical direction yields some unsettling episodes but also brings a poetic edge to the bond between Bubba and Mary-Lee.
To a degree the film panders to big city prejudices about small Southern towns with inhabitants typecast as fat, beer guzzling rednecks only too eager to grab their guns and partake in mob justice. Small town Americans have a right to feel aggrieved by such stereotypes (it isn't as if New York or Los Angeles are free of bigotry and murder) but the film does include some positive, if ineffectual, characters and though broadly drawn its setting remains evocative. The acting is exemplary throughout, including Larry Drake (in a dry run for his role on L.A. Law) evoking great sympathy as the unjustly persecuted Bubba and suitably haunted turns from Claude Earl Jones, Lane Smith (later Perry White on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman), Robert F. Lyons - as the most weak-willed member of the group - and a quietly dignified performance from Jocelyn Brando as Bubba’s mother who memorably remarks of pompous mailman Otis: “The only official thing you’ve done is lick stamps.”
As played by a brilliant Charles Durning, Otis is a classic small town bigot and scaremonger, itching to indulge his barely suppressed appetite for food, violence and maybe something even darker. At one point Mrs. Ritter unnerves Otis by noting he seems a little too fond of spying on little Mary-Lee “for her own protection.”
Since this is early Eighties American television, there is little in the way of gore but De Felitta winningly substitutes this with moments of wit. One characters grisly fall inside a wheat thresher is followed by a swift cut to a big dollop of strawberry jam on Otis’ plate.