“Dark Night of the Scarecrow”: A killer scarecrow seeks revenge in this 1981 made-for-TV movie

By on February 18, 2019

Decades after it was first broadcast as a “CBS Saturday Night Movie” on Saturday October 24, 1981, Dark Night of the Scarecrow still haunts viewers with its depiction of a small town supernatural scarecrow seeking revenge.

This memorable made-for-TV film is now streaming on Night Flight Plus!

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Dark Night of the Scarecrow — which might be the first horror film to feature a killer scarecrow, certainly the first TV movie — takes place in rural Midwestern small town, the kind we’re typically accustomed to believing is populated by sicko redneck bigots with hints of pedophilia happening behind the scenes.

This town’s main bigot is mailman “Otis P. Hazelrigg,” who is played by the great Charles Durning.

He was given the role after another great character actor, Strother Martin — originally cast as Otis — passed away before filming began.

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When “Marylee Williams” (Tonya Crowe) is mauled by a vicious dog after trespassing into a yard, Hazelrigg believes she was actually raped and then murdered by the town’s mentally-challenged 36-year old man-child “Bubba Ritter” (Larry Drake).

Hazelrigg and his unhinged lynch mob – along with his farmer cousins “Philby” (Claude E Jones) and “Harliss Hocker” (Lane Smith) and their bigot buddy, gas station attendant “Skeeter” (Robert Lyons) — find Bubba in a cornfield, where he’s hiding from them, disguised by his mother as a scarecrow.

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They exact brutal mob “justice,” gunning him down. However, it should be pointed out that Bubba had actually helped save the little girl, who had simply fainted after being attacked by the vicious pooch.

The men are brought up on charges for killing Bubba, and they’re put on trial, where they claim to have shot Bubba in self-defense after he came at them with a pitchfork.

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The foursome are acquitted and set free, but the story doesn’t end there, of course, because now a strange killer scarecrow begins taking revenge on the men responsible for his death, one by one, one of them falling into a woodchipper.

Over the years, repeated airings of Dark Night of the Scarecrow around Halloween each year helped earn it a reputation as one of the scariest TV movies ever made.

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Night Flight fans will likely recognize Larry Drake — who your humble author actually had drinks with during one fun night many moons ago at the Formosa Café, which was recently designated a “cultural resource” in West Hollywood — from his many film and TV appearances, including his award-winning role as mentally-challenged “Benny” on TV’s “L.A. Law,” and possibly even as the killer Santa in the “Tales from the Crypt” episode “And All Through the House.”

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Incidentally, that’s Jocelyn Brando (Marlon’s older sister) playing Bubba’s mother, “Mrs. Ritter.”

Read more about Dark Night of the Scarecrow below.

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Frank De Felitta, the director of Dark Night of the Scarecrow, was born in the Bronx, NYC, on August 3, 1921.

After returning home after serving overseas as a pilot during World War II, De Felitta began his career as a writer by penning radio scripts for the popular weekly program “The Whistler.”

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He eventually moved on to a career in television, writing episodes for TV anthology series like “Tale of Tomorrow” (1952) and the “Campbell Summer Soundstage” (1953).

By the early ’70s, his emphasis on strange “Twilight Zone”-ish stories imbued with horror and thriller/suspense elements had also led to him writing novels.

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De Felitta’s 1971 novel The Edict was later filmed as the 1972 film Z.P.G., and his 1978 novel The Entity — based on the true-life story of a woman who claimed to have been haunted by a spectral rapist — was also a bestseller.

It was adapted by De Felitta for a 1982 film of the same name, starring Barbara Hershey.

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De Felitta is probably best known as the author of 1975’s reincarnation horror novel Audrey Rose, which sold millions of copies.

The book was adapted two years after its publication (from a screenplay by De Felitta) as a feature film, also called Audrey Rose, directed by Robert Wise and starring Anthony Hopkins and Marsha Mason. Its success led to a sequel in 1982, For Love of Audrey Rose.

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His success as a novelist/screenwriter also led to directing, and by the time he directed Dark Night of the Scarecrow he’d already lensed two other made-for-TV movies — 1973’s Trapped and 1979’s The Two Worlds of Jennie Logan, an excellent time-travel saga starring Lindsay Wagner.

In an April 2012 interview published on the HorrorNews.net website, De Felitta said that he found the teleplay for Dark Night of the Scarecrow — written by J.D. Feigelson, who’d originally intended it to be an independent feature before his screenplay was purchased by CBS — to be a “a brilliant work, a veritable masterpiece of occult art.”

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One interesting story De Felitta tells is how, when they were midway through filming, they still didn’t have a scarecrow, which was required for the next day’s shoot.

He didn’t like the scarecrow that the art director had come up with and so the writer, J.D. Feigelson, stepped up to the challenge and created the scarecrow they used in the film.

Frank De Felitta — who during his long career in TV and film was nominated for two Emmys and won a Peabody Award — died on March 30, 2016, of natural causes. He was 94 years old.

Watch Dark Night of the Scarecrow on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.