Written by: Reed Steiner and Dan Mazur
Directed by: Jeff Burr
Starring: Elizabeth Barondes, John Mese, and Stephen Root
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďSit tight babe, I've gotta get me a tall, cold one."
"I thought that's what I was."
"No, you're the short hot one."
"I thought that's what I was."
"No, you're the short hot one."
When it comes to horror auteurs, Jeff Burrís name doesnít come up in conversation too much, most likely because itís difficult for a director to earn that label when Hollywood attaches him to hordes of sequels. After making an auspicious debut with From a Whisper to a Scream, he was subsequently charged with delivering follow-ups of varying quality, a career track that took him from The Stepfather to Pumpkinhead and just about everything in between. And say what you want about Burrís efforts, but he managed to leave each franchise in solid shape, which is something that many of his successors couldnít say.
Complimenting a guy for not being as bad as those who came after him seems backhanded, which isnít my intentionóthereís something to be said for sturdy, workman-like craftsmanship, which is exactly what Burr brought. Upon finally returning to original genre work, itís perhaps no surprise that he still didnít attempt to reinvent the wheel with Night of the Scarecrow, a supernatural slasher that could have just as easily been released in 1985 instead of 1995.
As a last gasp for the genre before Scream began to stab at it, Night of the Scarecrow seems gloriously quaint. The Goodman family has essentially cornered every market of a small, rural town for generations: William (Gary Lockwood) is the mayor, Frank (Stephen Root) is the town sheriff, Thaddeus (Bruce Glover) is the priest, and George (Dirk Blocker) tends the farm. However, their small empire is built upon a sordid past that comes roaring back to life when a couple of punk kids decide to vandalize a cornfield, where they unwittingly unleash a homicidal spirit that takes the form of a scarecrow and begins to hack up the locals.
Night of the Scarecrow probably works best in retrospect; in 1995, it would have obviously been beyond passť. By that point, it would have been surrounded by dozens of slashers on a shelf, two of which were already centered around scarecrows even. Shit, one of them features the same title with an additional word. This one borrows even more from Dark Night of the Scarecrow, as it repeats the vengeful, reanimated soul storyline and takes a little stroll down Elm Street and Antonio Bay. Whereas Dark Night centered on a slain manís immediate vengeance against those who killed him, this one passes the curse down through the centuries, as it turns out the Goodmanís ancestors made an unholy pact that ensured their prosperity about a century earlier.
Itís up to Williamís estranged daughter Claire (Elizabeth Barondes) to uncover the secrets alongside her new beau (John Mese), and you know the formula: one by one, townspeople begin to die in mysterious fashion. One guy becomes thresher fodder, while a couple of kids get stuffed in the worst possible way in the back of their van. Claire immediately senses that something is amiss, and, as the bizarre body count adds up, she begins to probe the family history before discovering a way to lay this spirit to rest permanently (itís totally ripped off from Dream Warriors, naturally). To say that Night of the Scarecrow is derivative is obvious and maybe even a bit expected, so Iím not so sure this is a criticism as much as it is an observation. As ever, familiarity isnít bad as long as itís well done, and this is another completely solid effort from Burr that gets the most important stuff right: the characters are distinctive, the gory assortment of kills are fine effects showcases, the atmosphere is thoroughly gothic and autumnal, and the pace is lightning quick.
As someone who spent so much time doing sequels, itís no surprise that Burr goes for the ďhero slasherĒ route with the scarecrow himself, who is front and center almost from the start. A halfway point between the likes of the loquacious Freddy and hulking, silent brutes like Michael and Jason, the scarecrow spits out some terse dialogue and especially repeats a bit about a book that recalls the undead father from Creepshow. His methods of dispatch are impressive, with the assault in the van being a particularly nightmarish and frenzied sequence out of the Sam Raimi mold. The scarecrow is even surrounded by an oddly impressive cast of familiar faces; in addition to the notable actors playing the Goodman brothers, a young John Hawkes appears as one of the drunken kids that accidentally resurrects the scarecrow. Lead actress Barondes isnít as familiar but acquits herself well in a final girl role that requires the requisite combination of toughness and girl next door sweetness that made so many of her predecessors memorable.
Which is not to say Barondes crafts the heir apparent to Laurie Strode or Nancy Thompson here, of course, but that seems appropriate since Night of the Scarecrow is stuffed with the parts of other films, nearly all of them superior. Even in the killer scarecrow canon, it can only boast being pretty good in light of Dark Night and Scarecrows. In true Burr form, though, the films that followed in this tradition were worse, so there you go: apparently, he had something of a Midas touch, only his efforts resulted in bronze. He didnít quite make the best or worst sequel in the Chainsaw, Puppet Master, or Pumpkinhead franchises, nor did he make the worst, so it follows that heíd do the same for the killer scarecrow genre. Like his other films, thereís nothing particularly cynical about the way heís cobbled together Night of the Scarecrow, as itís obviously done with some sense of unironic affection for slashers, and the production is generally sleek and lush as a result.
18 years later, itís easy to see how this mid-90s direct-to-video effort got lost in the shuffle; between Screamís thorough dissection of the genre just a year later and its similarity to a more popular film, it was destined for obscurity. Even the glory days of the DVD era couldnít revive it, as Paramount and Olive Films are only just now unleashing it. This outfit has been churning out some fine releases during the past year or so, and this continues that streak, as the gorgeously restored high-def transfer does wonders for Tom Callawayís slick photography. A vintage making-of featurette, a still gallery, and a commentary with Burr round out the discís supplements. At this point, many horror fansí collections likely resemble the video store shelves from Night of the Scarecrowís heyday; admittedly, when stacked up against the tall trees of this genre, itís difficult to find something like this completely necessary, but it is a bit of a rarity in that itís a straightforward 90s slasher that also happens to be pretty good. Buy it!
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