Scarecrows (1988): Field of Screams

Matty reflects on William Wesley’s still underrated hair-raiser. 

I can remember when SCARECROWS first hit DVD back in 2007. It was quite the event for cult horror aficionados. Released by MGM on the same day as two other oft requested titles from their library, From Beyond (1986) and The Burning (1981), made their long-awaited disc debuts, Scarecrows was, alas, the only one of them to land sans extras, despite an audio commentary with the film’s director, William Wesley, and producer, Cami Winikoff, having been recorded (thankfully, it’s now available on Scream Factory’s subsequent US Blu-ray). Still, the fact that this offbeat hair-raiser was back on the shelves for the first time since the glory days of VHS was incredibly exciting, and chatter throughout the genre community at the time (which included a full retrospective in Fangoria issue #267) rightly ruled it as cause for celebration — which makes Scarecrows’ sidelining today all the more mystifying, at least on British shores anyway. For whatever reason us Limeys have just never clicked with it, even though it was originally distributed in a beautiful-looking big box by arguably the most coveted video label among UK tape collectors (Medusa), and today can be picked up in every single HMV (usually in their perennial “3 for £20” offer) via 88 Films’ 2016 Blu.

Scarecrows is brilliant; a blend of Carnival of Souls (1962), Night of the Living Dead (1968), and Halloween (1978) that, although imperfect, is richly atmospheric and full of charm. Trumping even Frank De Felitta’s classic, made-for-TV spine-tingler Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981) in terms of suffocating mood, Wesley’s Florida-shot indie is the most purely frightening of all the scarecrow-based shockers — an intermittent cycle of rural terror that features Jeff Burr’s rollicking Night of the Scarecrow (1995), and Scarecrows’ unofficial sequel-cum-remake Husk (2011) among its other highlights. Wesley’s debut and, indeed, sole production of note (his tardy sophomore feature, 2001’s Route 666, is pretty janky beyond its intriguing flutters of thematic overlap), Scarecrows drips malevolence. The type of movie that works best when watched late at night, it’s total nightmare fuel; a dream-worm that burrows deep into your subconscious, and unloads one creepy image after another.

At the centre of its powerful visuals are the scarecrows themselves. Designed with an EC-like ghoulishness by FX man Norman Cabrera (who’d go on to ply his trade on Wishmaster (1997), Thir13en Ghosts (2001), and The Walking Dead), they’re formidable and shudder-inducing bogeymen; the inherent freakiness of their masked, humanoid form amplified by Raimi/Lynch regular Peter Deming’s lusciously dark photography. While the moments in which the nefarious, straw-stuffed effigies come to life, pursuing the hi-tech heisters trespassing on their land, result in several satisfying jolts, it’s Wesley’s quieter passages that max out the chills. The stretches with the scarecrows just limply hanging on their posts are unbearably tense, and Wesley delights in probing them with his camera, pushing closer and closer, daring us to keep watching. It’s a genius touch – because that’s exactly what we do.

There’s one scarecrow in particular that Wesley, who also edited the film, keeps cutting back to. He’s Scarecrows’ chief antagonist; the impression given is that he’s at the heart of the story’s supernatural shenanigans. Framed in a tight close up, a smile seems to spread across his burlap-covered face as Scarecrows goes on, and his grin is made all the more sinister when he starts to breathe. So we wait. We wait for him to burst into action and, ultimately, offer an answer to what’s going on. The kicker is neither is forthcoming. There’s no jump. There’s no explanation. And it’s bloody marvellous.

The irony, then, is that this finely crafted air of equivocal fear is both Scarecrows’ greatest strength and — depending on your attention span — cardinal sin. Having penned the script alongside Richard Jeffries (helmer of the James Earl Jones-starring dud Blood Tide (1982) and writer of hoary chiller Cold Creek Manor (2003)), Wesley favours feeling over cohesive storytelling. The whos, whats, and whys are something for us to piece together from the slivers of information we’re gently treat to: a menacing family photo; the discovery of a satanic altar, replete with a crucified crow; a well-delivered page or so of opaque dialogue, wherein a character starts to crack contemplating the bizarre nature of what he and the rest of his gang of para-military bank robbers have stumbled into. Personally, that’s catnip. However, in an era where such similarly nuanced and deliberately paced fare is deemed ‘slow’ by casual viewers (ironic considering they’ll happily watch seven-hundred episodes of a TV show back to back), the unprepared might rule Wesley’s evasive goose-pimpler a chore.

Scarecrows (1988) poster


 

Follow Matty on Twitter @mattybudrewicz

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