You know how the home video rights to movies sometimes shuffle around from studio to studio. As if you need an example, Cujo first
hit Blu-ray courtesy of Lionsgate and now has Olive Films' logo stamped on it, and I figured the same sort of thing must've just happened with Dark Night of the Scarecrow. Then I tore off the shrinkwrap and...nope! Completely different movie. The title's not the only thing that's generic and unimaginative about this long-forgotten mid-'90s slasher either.
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Once upon a time, there was a sex-crazed warlock defiling all the womenfolk in town. Their husbands and fathers banded together, using the warlock's own magic against him and condemning him to an eternity imprisoned in the form of a scarecrow. Many lifetimes later, the cornfield where the nameless warlock slept is on the verge of being razed to make way for a shiny new mini-mall. The sorceror, still trapped in a body of burlap and straw, is awakened. The descendents of the Goodman family are being slaughtered, one by one, until the warlock can get what passes for his hands on a book of dark magicks. Once he does, he can reclaim his true body and...I don't know, destroy everyone and everything or something equally apocalyptic.
So, yeah, supernatural killer, hefty body count, some inventive murders, a couple of good-lookin' twentysomethings caught in the middle...you know how this whole thing goes. That's kind of the problem with Night of the Scarecrow; it's a
paint-by-numbers slasher, with only the "oh, this time it's a scarecrow" distinguishing it from about 18,000 other virtually identical horror flicks. Hardly anyone scattered throughout the movie has much of a personality. Nothing intense or suspenseful lurks in the shadows to send pulses racing. The screenplay indulges just about every last genre cliché, from the hand-on-the-shoulder jump scare to the handsome hero type wrongly accused of these grisly murders. It's the path of least resistance all the way around. If I gave you a weekend to hammer out a script for a killer scarecrow movie, dollars to doughnuts it'd end up almost exactly like this.
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It's just such a missed opportunity because Night of the Scarecrow really does have a lot going for it. I like that the Final Girl (Elizabeth Barondes) isn't the meek virgin that you usually get in these sorts of movies. Claire is brassy, self-assured, and can take care of herself. Can't really say anything bad about a cast that also includes Stephen Root, Gary Lockwood, and John Hawkes, and it's especially a treat seeing the generally-older-than-his-years Hawkes playing a snotty, overentitled punk. The look of the scarecrow is creepy and unnerving, and the supernatural element makes for some decent kills, though the budget and mandated R rating limit how much gore can be sloshed around. C'mon, you're running a thresher over a guy; don't just toss a bucket of stage blood onto a wall! One kill has some tendrils bursting from a teenaged sexpot's tits, dragging her out the back of a van and into the earth below, which seems really inventive and different. Can't get your hopes up too much because someone else suffers a very similar death when he bursts at the seams with straw a little while later. I wish there were more strange, surreal moments like a pig puttering around a church or a haymaker that's not a punch so much as a blown kiss, but there's not a lot like that to go around.
What's really frustrating about Night of the Scarecrow is that it's not that bad. It's lined up the right cast, and the folks on the other side of the camera clearly know what they're doing. It's just that I'd rather a movie take chances and fail than play it so middle-of-the-road safe like this. Other than "oh, wow, John Hawkes!", a couple of standout setpieces, and snickering at some howlingly inept circa-1995 CGI, there's not a whole lot that's worth mentioning about Night of the Scarecrow. Skip It.
Paramount (or whoever) didn't exactly pull out all the stops when preparing this high-def master of Night of the Scarecrow. There's a good bit more speckling than average. Clarity and fine detail have a tenuous grip on the lower rungs of okay. Film grain is present but frequently muddy and clumpy. The image overall is considerably softer than I'd expect, contrast skews flat, and I don't think there's a pure black lurking around anywhere in the entire flick. I get the impression this is kind of an old, musty HD master which would look lousy on Blu-ray even under the best circumstances, and...well, we're not exactly talking about the best circumstances either. The coarse, chunky texture of the grain can be problematic, particularly in one strobe-heavy sequence where Night of the Scarecrow clearly lacks the bit budget it needs.
Hey, don't take my word for it. Click on any of these screengrabs to pop them open to fullsize and see what I mean. The first is a pretty extreme case, admittedly, due to some clunky digital compositing. In the second, you can see the encoding struggle. The third and final shot gives you more of a typical idea what to expect out of Night of the Scarecrow.
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Not unwatchable but definitely sub-standard. To go ahead and rattle off the rest of the technical specs: BD-25. 1.78:1. AVC.
Night of the Scarecrow's 16-bit DTS-HD Master Audio stereo soundtrack is even more of a disappointment. It's a thin, trebly mix, and not a single effect in the movie -- not even some of the explosions once the climax rolls around -- packs anything resembling a wallop. The higher end of the spectrum is harsh enough that I had to turn down the volume on my receiver a lot for it to feel comfortable, and the reproduction of much of the dialogue is still barely tolerable.
No subs, no dubs, no remixes. The only other audio option is a commentary track.
I was kind of surprised to see such a healthy stack of extras. Thanks, Jeff Burr!
- Audio Commentary: Wow. I really, really dug this commentary with director Jeff Burr. Even though nearly twenty years have passed, Burr is able to speak about the production with such precision
and specificity that you'd think cameras were rolling last Wednesday. I especially appreciate the balance between more familiar technical comments with the business end of filmmaking. Burr acknowledges that Night of the Scarecrow is a very ordinary genre film and delves into some of the reasons why, with corporate splits, managerial shifts, and an eviscerated budget watering down an ambitious screenplay into something more generic. He's very honest and matter-of-fact about all this too, not assigning blame or wallowing in misery about it. Burr also speaks a lot about the state of low-budget genre filmmaking in the mid-'90s and notes how this class of horror movie doesn't really exist anymore.
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It's tough for me to recommend Night of the Scarecrow, but if you do buy or rent this Blu-ray disc, definitely give its commentary a spin.
- Gallery (8 min.; HD): Burr also contributes commentary for a very unique image gallery. Rather than focus on the usual production stills and international poster art -- although there's that too! -- this gallery more heavily concentrates on script pages, jotted-down notes, callsheets, storyboards, conceptual artwork, and production memos. I wish more Blu-ray discs would showcase these sorts of things. It's interesting to see how the immediately striking poster art that was made for Night of the Scarecrow was replaced by a bland, boring VHS box. No wonder nobody rented it!
- Featurette (3 min.; SD): Last up is a rough-looking promotional featurette, sourced from some multi-generation VHS copy. It's heavy on recapping the plot and lobbing out clips from the movie, but there are some quick interviews and a couple behind-the-scenes peeks at the makeup effects.
The Final Word
It's kind of interesting seeing some of the familiar faces in the cast, and Night of the Scarecrow does trot out a few really nice looking setpieces, but none of that's enough to salvage this limp, lifeless, uninspired, instantly forgettable slasher flick. Skip It.