October 18th: Scarecrows (1988)
Every now and again I'll read about a film and think to myself "Why the hell haven't I heard of this?", especially if the film is of a genre and era I have some familiarity with. While Scarecrows is a very minor cult classic, I'm convinced that if the film had a name or two it would be a much better known horror picture. It certainly is deserving: Scarecrows is really quite good.
Scarecrows takes place over the course of a single night. The premise is simple: a group of ex-military theft a big bag of cash from the Army and escape with a hijacked plane and two hostages. A guy named Bert decides not to share the money and jumps from the plane over an old farm house. The gang land the craft and make chase, only to find an abandoned old farm and some seriously creepy scarecrows staked next to a family graveyard. The folks who used to run the farm--the Fowlers--seem to have migrated from the grave to the rotting scarecrows, and aren't too happy about being invaded. This is what we know, the rest is unexplained.
Thus Scarecrows is extremely short, barely 80 minutes in length. There is no central character, instead an ensemble cast, the actors of mixed ability. While there is barely any back story, there is a lot of set-up. The scarecrows don't even move until about 50 minutes in. While this may be a sure sign of a limited budget, it actually creates a real mood of fear. Each time the camera closes in on a scarecrow, The audience wonder if this will finally be the scene in which one comes to life.
Besides being legitimately frightening, the film gracefully maintains a bleak and moody atmosphere. And while there is some obvious day-for-night shooting, the darkness surrounding the action is quite effective. Interestingly there is almost a total lack of music in Scarecrows; often the airplane's radio or the group's walkie-talkies will stand in for a score. The film looks great, and the camera work is admirable. In most scenes the camera is constantly in motion, panning around, shooting through windows, suggesting the point-of-view of an unwanted prowler.
The film is also admirable for the mistakes it doesn't make. The cast is kept to a minimum, the running length is just right, there is no cumbersome and unnecessary back story, there is no stock nudity, there's no excessive gore, there's no romance, and--thankfully--there is no twist ending. The ending, in fact is great. While a NotLD style stand-off seems inevitable, the film actually takes the climax out of the Fowler's home and through the woods into the getaway plane.
One reason I'm surprised this film isn't better known is that it seems very much of its time. Like Pumpkinhead, this is essentially a morality play. While the thieves become likable as the film progresses, they ultimately must pay for their actions (they have in fact killed many Policemen since the robbery). This aspect also lends the film the quality of a good anthology segment, perhaps as a choice episode of Night Gallery. If I've made my points rather quickly, its because this is a brief, breezy film. No masterpiece, yet fully accomplished. If you have an empty slot on your Halloween-night marathon list, add this one. Your friends will all ask, "How come I haven't heard of this?"