The video rental business was booming throughout the ’90s. From mom-and-pops to huge chains and even several well-known grocery stores, it seemed like everybody wanted in on the action. With the increasing rise and revenue of VHS rentals, filmmakers saw a big opportunity: bypass theaters altogether and release movies directly to the video market. The horror genre, which is well known for smaller budgets and a rabid fan base, was ripe for success within that relatively new business model.
For Nightmare on Film Street’s “Guilty Pleasures” month, I’m taking a look at 1995’s Night of the Scarecrow. The film, directed by Jeff Burr, features an entertaining mix of supernatural and slasher elements while exploring the theme of how a small town’s wrongful past effects those living in the present. Night of the Scarecrow stars Elizabeth Barondes (The Cell 2), John Mese (TV’s American Gothic), Bruce Glover (Warlock: The Armageddon), Gary Lockwood (2001: A Space Odyssey), Stephen Root (Get Out), Dirk Blocker (Prince of Darkness), and John Hawkes (I Still Know What You Did Last Summer). Jeff Burr directed from a screenplay by Reed Steiner and Dan Mazur. The film was released directly to video in 1995.
“Night of the Scarecrow is pure ’90s fun.”
In Night of the Scarecrow, Claire Goodman (Elizabeth Barondes) arrives in town just as her mayoral father, George, is praising the upcoming land development project that is set to turn farmland into a shopping center. Meanwhile, a pair of drunk teens accidentally set free the spirit of an evil warlock which immediately inhabits a nearby scarecrow. From there, the scarecrow/warlock doesn’t waste any time before he begins killing off the descendants of those responsible for his death. During the blood-soaked mayhem, the scarecrow/warlock is looking for an old spell book that will give him the ability to become flesh and blood once again.
Night of the Scarecrow is most interesting in the way the screenplay teases the effect the warlock’s backstory has on the entire town while focusing on just a few main characters. By showcasing those characters as several key players within the traditionally structured town, as well as having them be blood kin to one another, the writers kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.
Prior to the Night of the Scarecrow‘s main events, Claire Holland‘s ancestors made a deal with a warlock in which the town would be granted bountiful harvests. After the warlock begins to take advantage of the agreement, he is killed and his bones are buried in a field. Flash forward, and the warlock’s spirit is unleashed on the town. Unfortunately for Claire, her father is not the only family member who is the target of the evil vengeance. Instead, Claire has three uncles, each of whom represents an important role in the everyday workings of the small town.
First on the scarecrow’s kill list is uncle #1: William. William Goodman (Gary Lockwood) is an alcoholic farmer who is ready to give up his land. The farming aspect is crucial to the overall story arc of Night of the Scarecrow, as it relates to the development of the new shopping mall, as well as the catalyst for the long-ago deal. William‘s gruesome death via his own farming equipment is one of the film’s highlights, but the scene only hints at the outrageous kills that take place later in the story.
Next up is uncle Thaddeus, a priest. Thaddeus (Bruce Glover) is an essential character in the narrative of Night of the Scarecrow. Thaddeus is the member of the Holland family who is able to reveal the town’s disturbing history to the main protagonists (and the film’s viewers). However, prior to the revelation, the scarecrow attempts to silence Thaddeus by sewing his mouth shut in a manner similar to the stitching on the burlap that covers his own head.
Frank Goodman is the town sheriff and survives the scarecrow’s rampage until close to the end, but like Mayor Goodman, Frank has a bit of a bad side. With the mayor’s urging, Frank unjustly arrests Claire‘s new love interest, Dillon, as the prime suspect in the recent murders. Not only is the maneuver one that signifies corrupt leadership, but the coverup also reflects the shady history of the town as well as the true essence of the Goodmans, the very family the town is built around. And not only all of that … but having Dillon in custody also throws a wrench in Claire‘s plans to save the day. Among the long line of Goodman family members (those who are shown within the movie’s running time, anyway) Claire is by far the most important, as she is the one who eventually sets things right.
Night of the Scarecrow is pure ’90s fun. The gore featured in the kill scenes is often over the top, and most of those scenes are beautifully lit in shades of bright color. One standout sequence inside a “party van” is accentuated by a flashing strobe light during the bloodshed. The design of the scarecrow is simple, yet effective, and gives the antagonist a Goosebumps-esque look. As a horror villain, the scarecrow/warlock backstory has enough simplified interest that the idea could have easily been turned into a direct-to-video franchise. Director Jeff Burr, who previously helmed the similar Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings, handles the material well.
All these years later, Night of Scarecrow is still a fun watch (albeit one that is mostly forgotten) that harkens back to the days when these kinds of movies were churned out on a regular basis. The central idea of past indiscretions effecting future generations is presented in an easy-to-digest manner. Here the theme is blatant, but it is also one that could have been expanded upon and used in a sequel. Twice in the movie, the scarecrow is shown inserting some sort of seeds into victims’ mouths. At the finale, one character spits the seed onto the ground where it seems to take root; a prime direct-to-video horror sequel setup if I’ve ever seen one.
‘Night of Scarecrow is still a fun watch […] that harkens back to the days when these kinds of movies were churned out on a regular basis.”
Have you seen Night of the Scarecrow? Who is your favorite scarecrow in horror? Are you secretly worried that your ancestors are to blame for horrible atrocities that will one day come back to haunt you? Let us know on Twitter, in the official NOFS Subreddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!