Welcome to Freaks of Nature, a monthly column devoted to creature features of all shapes and sizes. This includes eco-horrors, kaijū, cryptids, and everything else in between. If a film features a beast who strikes terror in the heart of man, I’ll be there, bestiary in hand and ready to bask in all that monster glory.
Straw-filled mannequins known as scarecrows are a staple of farming everywhere. Japan’s agricultural deity Kuebiko dates as far back as 712; L. Frank Baum’s classic Oz series and the Batman franchise both include iconic characters modeled after scarecrows. Yet, as prevalent as they are throughout history and culture, these innately creepy effigies are rarely animated in horror.
“The fright potential of the scarecrow has indeed been broached several times, but no effort has come as close to bringing their full terror out as the 1988 movie aptly called Scarecrows.”
The genre has dabbled with the use of scarecrows over the years. The 1981 TV-movie Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a notable pioneer, whereas the similarly titled 1995 slasher Night of the Scarecrow slipped under the radar. There were also a series of exploitative and shoddy indie films about killer strawmen that popped up in the early aughts. The fright potential of the scarecrow has indeed been broached several times, but no effort has come as close to bringing their full terror out as the 1988 movie aptly called Scarecrows.
A group of criminals hijack a father and daughter’s plane after robbing a military bank. En route to Mexico, one of the robbers escapes with the loot. This forces the others to land in a seemingly abandoned field littered with old scarecrows. As they search for the traitor, the field’s dormant residents awaken and slay the interlopers.
The movie was budgeted at under $500,000. The original investor, Ted Vernon, has a prominent role in the film as one of the crooks, Corbin. This, along with casting his dog Dax as the final girl’s adorable pet, was part of Vernon’s stipulations for financing the picture’s first $150,000. His demands and inexperience as an actor, however, caused friction during filming. Director William Wesley’s thoughts on the matter today: “[Dax] is arguably a better actor than [Ted] is.”
With Wesley’s screenplay finally in order — an early incarnation was called “Old MacDonald’s Farm,” producer Cami Winikoff recounts on Scream Factory’s interview — and some money in the bank, production began in 1985. Most of the film was shot on location for twenty-five days in Dave, Florida; the plane scenes were completed in Mexico six months later. The undertaking was not remotely easy as they ran out of funds in the middle of shooting. In addition to that, there was a mosquito infestation, the weather was temperamental, and the condemned farmhouse in the movie was on it last legs. On their way to Los Angeles from Miami so they could edit the film, Wesley and Winikoff had a Final Destination moment when they missed their flight by driving to the wrong airport. They had booked tickets on Delta Air Lines Flight 191, which encountered a fatal microburst on the same day in 1985.
Finding a distributor was more difficult than making the movie. Manson International Pictures acquired the picture months before they went out of business. It was then passed on to the likes of MGM and Orion before squarely landing on home video. Even so, the all-but-lost movie’s total collective return was approximately $3 million, which includes international sales. As Winikoff clarifies, Scarecrows did well overseas.
Something fondly remembered about Scarecrows is its effects work and gore. By today’s standards, it is relatively tame in blood and violence. Back then, though, the MPAA was more prudent than ever with horror features (similar to the UK’s “video nasty” affair). Their censorship resulted in a widely despised edited release that made fans seek out the rarer, unrated version. In its original form, the movie contains a variety of stabbings and mutilations. What really bothered the MPAA, though, was any scene involving the scarecrows stuffing the stolen money inside their victims.
“Scarecrows is lightning in a bottle.”
The film’s eerie atmosphere and look was all thanks to Peter Deming, a recent AFI alum who was working on Evil Dead II around the same time. His eldritch cinematography along with Wesley’s comprehensive storyboarding attribute to why Scarecrows still gets under viewers’ skin to this day. An example of Deming’s skill is how the scattered scarecrow props gingerly “move” on-screen despite there not even being a breeze around. This happy accident continues to creep out the filmmakers to this day. Deming, whose DP work includes the Scream sequels, Cabin in the Woods, and Drag Me to Hell, established an otherworldly mood in the desolate, haunted cornfield. The setting, comparable to that of The Night of the Living Dead, feels like it’s a world away where nothing at all grows other than death.
Scarecrows was a first-time experience for the crew. Wesley, who co-wrote the script with Richard Jefferies, teamed up with then-newcomer Winikoff; she would later go on to produce movies like Leprechaun and Return of the Living Dead 3 despite her confessed fear of horror. Yet another new face to the industry was Norman Cabrera, an up-and-coming, eighteen-year-old makeup artist Wesley met in a comic book shop. The young man’s work impressed Wesley from the first moment he saw all his homemade creations. Cabrera, who only had $5,000 to work with, in fact designed the titular monsters, which have become the film’s greatest legacy — they were paraded when the movie was being shopped around at Cannes. Today, Cabrera’s magic can be found in other genre offerings like Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, in which he designed the terrifying scarecrow character Harold.
While his contemporaries were immersing themselves in electronic music, composer Terry Plumeri remained traditional. His work on the film is entirely acoustic and percussive; this gives the movie’s uncanny score a timeless quality. Plumeri, who had been primarily ghostwriting beforehand, was no novice. His work ethic yielded a complete soundtrack in a day, and his ear for menace and strain is felt in every one of the film’s finer setpieces. Plumeri’s was so dedicated to his craft that he and his people created a percussion instrument just for the movie. This adds to Scarecrows‘ overall individuality.
Wesley, who had been working on documentaries up until this point, wanted to make a micro-budgeted feature with essentially a “guy in a rubber suit.” He eventually chose scarecrows because he noticed how underutilized they were in horror movies. The human plot of his film was then based on the concept of the scarecrow’s natural enemy — crows. Like those pilfering birds, the black-clad criminals (the “Crows”) in the story have stolen something and descended upon a farm. Hence the need for the movie’s demonic namesakes to awaken and make quick work of the intruders.
It is never factually stated as such, but the story does play with the idea of the characters being already dead. The suggestion is they somehow died and this cornfield is like their personal Hell. The dialogue even hints at this Twilight Zone-esque twist (“And we’re not… I mean, we’re not really here; this isn’t real“). By that theory, Scarecrows becomes even more of a bitter morality tale. Wesley’s proposal that everything happening on screen is the Crows’ divine punishment, gives the film layers.
Scarecrows is lightning in a bottle. Industry newcomers as well as the reasonably unseasoned came together and pooled their talent, endured a stressful work environment, and saw their way through the nightmare of film distribution. In hindsight, this labor of love was an extraordinary time for all those involved. It opened the door for some, whereas others got a better idea of what they wanted in life. On the opposite side of the screen, audiences are still enthralled by this cruel and visceral fable. Scarecrows, who were already unnerving to be around or look at, got their biggest endorsement as icons of horror with this hidden gem.
“Scarecrows, who were already unnerving to be around or look at, got their biggest endorsement as icons of horror with this hidden gem.”
Have you seen Scarecrows? Did you find those creepy, soulless monsters hanging around farmer’s fields as scary as we do? Share your thoughts on Scarecrows with the Nightmare on Film Street community on Twitter, in our Official Subreddit, or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group.