The Art of Commerce: Jeff Burr’s Night of the Scarecrow (1995)

Matty gets all mushy over a quality slasher flick from an underappreciated auteur who’s consistently found a way to reconcile his personal vision with the demands of the money men. 

Too often do we generalise directors, splitting them into one of two diametrically opposed camps. 

They’re either filmmakers or jobbers. 

Auteurs or journeymen. 

An artist or a gun for hire. 

However, as with a lot of things, a director’s career isn’t black and white. And just as someone can be a whole heap of contradictions all at once in real life, a director’s work can bridge the gap between both art and commerce — particularly in the B-movie arena where you gotta hustle to earn a crust. 

Look at Jeff Burr. 

Following his eerie feature debut, From a Whisper to a Scream (1987) — a genuinely freaky compendium that has, quite rightly, built a cult fan base since its original release — Burr found himself in demand as the go-to guy for horror sequels. In fairly quick succession, Burr would shout ‘action!’ on The Stepfather 2 (1989), Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990), Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings (1993), and the back-to-back double whammy of Puppet Master 4 (1993) and 5 (1994), pausing to craft a $300,000 passion project, a 16mm B&W dramedy called Eddie Presley in 1992, and a couple of episodes of the early ‘90s Land of the Lost revival. Audience and critical responses to his numerical-based assignments ranged from mixed to contemptuous. The general opinion was that Burr was a serviceable pair of hands at best, and a grind-‘em-out schlockmeister at worst. 

But those of us who know, know

There’s a reason Burr’s name serves as a masonic handshake among discerning genre nuts: his films are glorious, distinguished offerings that, while unashamedly mercenary in genesis and regularly compromised by feckless producers and distributors, betray Burr’s robust personality and style, and all of them draw from a pool of ideas and themes that are uniquely Burr-esque. Naysayers might argue otherwise — that, the excellent Eddie Presley and chill-lined war flick, Straight into Darkness (2004), aside, Burr has never fulfilled his ambitions of being a maker of ruminative indie fare — but a deeper look at the director’s CV reveals that he has indeed lived up to his own quietly maverick mantra. Each flick has continued to explore Burr’s fascination with underdog characters, and every assignment has enabled him to probe his signature notion of man’s capacity for unpleasantness — albeit under the guise of sequeldom or via soldier of fortune work for fellow merc-auteur chimeras, Charles Band and John Eyres. A good analogy for Burr is that of the bluesman: it’s not the notes he hits but how he plays and riffs between them.

Tellingly, one of Burr’s strongest is also one of his most corporate and whoreish: his splendid but homogenised supernatural slasher, NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW (1995). 

Cooked to order, Night of the Scarecrow was written as plain ol’ ‘Scarecrow’ by Reed Steiner and Dan Mazur in 1990 for Frank Perry’s Corsair Pictures. Inspired by Freddy Krueger’s lucrative infiltration of pop culture, Corsair wanted a piece of the horror franchise pie and Steiner and Mazur were happy to oblige, penning a script packed to the gills with Krueger-aping witticisms and Wizard of Oz (1939) references as an evil, murderous scarecrow terrorises an upwardly mobile farming community. Corsair soon sank due to financial difficulties and Night of the Scarecrow spent the next four years in development hell, until producers Steve White and Barry Bernardi picked up the script and brought it to the then recently reformed Republic Films, who, like Corsair, were keen to establish a branded fright saga to complement their Witchboard (1989) and Night of the Demons (1988) sequels. Initially pegged as the directorial debut of Kevin Yagher, Burr, who had been introduced to White and Bernardi by pal and Tales From the Hood (1995) helmer Rusty Cundieff, was handed the reins after Yagher jumped ship for Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996), which, amazingly, the FX genius believed was a better career move [1].

Despite greeting the comedic bent of the dialogue with a deafening sigh of disapproval, and hating the story’s rigid adherence to the Freddy/Michael/Jason formula, Burr saw tremendous potential in Night of the Scarecrow. He loved that it wasn’t a sequel and was pleased that he was finally given first dibs on setting the parameters of a mooted franchise — even though he wasn’t enamoured that the project was launched in such a cynical and enterprising manner to begin with. Still, as pragmatic as he is art-driven, Burr was happy to have the gig, especially as he was granted a lavish five weeks of prep, twenty-eight days to shoot, and a budget around the $2million mark — a figure that stands with Leatherface as the heartiest Burr has ever had. 

As a result, what Burr came up with is brilliant. Scaling back the humour and bouldering past by-the-numbers plot points and thin characterisations with unwavering gusto, Night of the Scarecrow is a cracking ghost train ride. It’s stupendous entertainment; snappy, snazzy, scary, and slick. 

An undoubted boon is the film’s mood and aesthetic. From the suffocating feeling of dread in From a Whisper to a Scream and the macabre mirth of Stepfather 2, to the Spielbergian magic of Puppet Master 4 and gothic flair of Pumpkinhead II, Burr is a proven master of atmosphere and visual pizzaz. And in Night of the Scarecrow, the potent EC vibe he conjures is intoxicating. It’s a ghoulish comic book of a picture, bursting with lurid, Bava-indebted lighting, and a raft of boisterous camera angles. A scene involving a cameo from Burr regulars Duane Whitaker and Joe Unger as a twitchy team of deputies, bathed in the red glow of numerous flares, is a fist-pumping ‘moment’ — sprightly, jolty and slyly meta, Burr presumably tipping his hat to Unger’s flare-transfixed role in his own Leatherface — and he makes superb use of the chest-mounted SnorriCam in a few of the eponymous Scarecrow’s attacks. Done in homage to John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966), this vertigo-inducing effect adds a disorienting yet dynamic ferocity to The Scarecrow’s vicious rampage, Burr throwing us into the middle of it and deftly achieving his goal of grabbing us by the lapels and refusing to let go.  

Indeed, Night of the Scarecrow is truly a film of spectacle. As well as splashing pints of claret across the screen with rollicking swagger, and unloading a thrillingly hell-for-leather finale, Burr piles on ickier visceral terrors, fabricating a remarkable spread of pleasingly rubbery deaths that include Scarecrow-controlled corn vines and straw flying from assorted orifices — stunningly imaginative gags rendered by David B. Miller. Brought in as a marketing ploy so White and Bernardi could advertise Night of the Scarecrow’s grue as coming from the make-up wiz responsible for Freddy Krueger’s blistered visage, Miller also designed the film’s big bad, creating The Scarecrow’s burlap-covered bonce through a mix of canny costuming and prosthetics. A superlative humanoid monster, The Scarecrow is a fabulous sight to behold and is played to the hilt by stage actor Howard Swain. It’s a wonderful mime performance, Swain managing to sell the strawman illusion, moving his body as if his innards were perpetually on the cusp of spilling, yet maintaining an air of menace and an imposing gait.

But it’s when Burr gets the chance to be, well, Burr-y when Night of the Scarecrow soars. Because irrespective of the film’s routine structure, predictability, and oh-so-convenient narrative leaps (the running order of victims is obvious; who will survive and what will be left of them is a dead cert; and Stephen Root’s sheriff just happens to remember a hilariously specific hiding place at the exact minute it’s needed), Steiner and Reed’s meat n’ potatoes scenario does afford Burr the opportunity to noodle with his beloved ‘man’s capacity for unpleasantness’ concept and get a lil’ fruity with his spooky imagery. In regards to the former, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) star Gary Lockwood’s blustery, land-grabbing Mayor and his pervy priest brother, Thaddeus (the incomparable Bruce Glover), are total caricatures but they personify the small-town politics that bubble in Night of the Scarecrow’s background, and Burr has a ball juggling the public vs. private paradoxes of their characters, emphasising the film’s intriguing — if, ultimately, thrown away — central thesis of children paying for the sins of their fathers. 

And that brings us to the latter, Burr’s kooky tableaux. As wild and lairy as it is, Night of the Scarecrow’s finest frissons are when they’re subtle or strange.

When barns and farmhouses brood in the thick black night…

When we quickly glimpse The Scarecrow as he slips into a cornfield…

And when Burr flirts with the profane, unleashing a Glover-led stretch of creepy majesty that dovetails from an impishly blasphemous sequence in a church, to a hypnotically presented sepia flashback that details The Scarecrow’s genesis. It’s the film’s golden passage, and it’s bolstered by the malevolent charisma of the mighty John LaZar, the Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) icon showing up and casually stealing the entire movie with his brief, wordless turn as a hedonistic warlock — the original human form of Swain’s revenge-hungry effigy.

Scheduled for U.S. theatrical release (in a double bill with Republic’s Witchboard: The Possession (1995)), a reshuffling of management at Republic and the dissolution of White and Bernardi’s producing partnership put paid to any cinema plans for Night of the Scarecrow. Instead, it went straight-to-video on 16th January 1996 (six weeks after Witchboard: The Possession’s tape premiere), where it shipped a paltry 12,000 units and scraped in less than half its budget, nixing any further instalments immediately. Here in the U.K. it wasn’t much better: Night of the Scarecrow came and went with zero fanfare and promptly slid into relative obscurity — the place where, tragically, it seems destined to stay now that Olive’s awesome but seldom spoke of 2013 Blu-ray is out of print.

[1] It wasn’t: an infamously troubled production, Yagher ended up disowning the flawed but interesting Bloodline, taking the ‘Alan Smithee’ pseudonym amidst interference and extensive reshooting and recutting from backers, Dimension.

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