Tuesday, October 4, 2011

31 Days Of Horror Movies, Part 2

And now, two that were new to me:

Dark Night Of The Scarecrow (1981)

Dark Night Of The Scarecrow is one of those vintage made-for-TV movies that came from an era that didn’t give two shits about traumatizing younger viewers. This golden age stretches from about the early Seventies to the mid-Eighties, and gave us movies like Trilogy Of Terror, the original Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, and my personal favourite, 1982’s Don’t Go To Sleep. I guess I can see why Dark Night Of The Scarecrow might have been upsetting to little kids of its day—1981, to be exact—but it’s pretty tame by today’s standards. The final scene is a little creepy, but otherwise it moves along like a lackluster feature-length episode of The Twilight Zone (or, more appropriately, one of its lesser imitators—Tales From The Darkside, perhaps, or Monsters).

This slice of Southern gothic begins in a small farming town, with your standard Faulknerian idiot-man-child, Bubba (Larry Drake, in a role that pinpoints exactly where the typecasting began), playing happily with a little girl while the local mailman (Charles Durning) watches suspiciously. When little Marylee is nearly mauled to death by a dog, Bubba is immediately blamed, and the mailman leads an angry mob to dole out some sweet vigilante justice. Bubba’s kindly mother believes he’s innocent, but implores him to hide anyway. Bubba disguises himself as a scarecrow, but is gunned down by the crazed postal worker (is this where that stereotype comes from?) and his redneck pals before his innocence can be proven. The mob is exonerated in a court of law, but before long, weird stuff starts happening—a mysterious scarecrow keeps popping up, then disappearing, usually heralding the death of one of the vigilantes at the hands of some rogue farm machinery. Is it Bubba, back from the grave to avenge his own death? Is it his sainted mother? Or is it some other, ill-defined, unsatisfactory explanation? Prepare to be disappointed.

Dark Night Of The Scarecrow is a veritable who’s who of “Hey, it’s that guy!” guys, character actors like Drake, Durning, and Lane Smith (AKA Perry White from Lois & Clark). It’s an interesting example of a bygone era in network television, but there isn’t a lot else to recommend it. I guess if I had stumbled upon it when I was eight or nine and just trying to find out what Arnold was up to that week on Diff’rent Strokes, it might have freaked me out a bit, but not now. The fuzzy, sorta-spooky ending raised more questions than it answered. The biggest unanswered question of all, though, is how a small-town mail carrier came to wield such power and influence over his peers.

The Stuff (1985)

Writer/director Larry Cohen was kind of like an alternate John Sayles in his heyday. Like Sayles, he wrote (and directed) movies that were unabashed genre pictures, dabbling in Blaxploitation (Hell Up In Harlem, Black Caesar) before settling comfortably into horror movies like It’s Alive, God Told Me To, and Q: The Winged Serpent. Cohen never quite morphed into a full-fledged dramatic auteur the way Sayles would (after scripting chores on fun monster fare like Alligator, The Howling, and Piranha, Sayles would achieve respectability with mainstream flicks like Lone Star and Eight Men Out), but the two were great at writing horror movies that were tongue-in-cheek without being stupid, and vastly entertaining besides.

The Stuff was Cohen’s great dig at the rabid consumer culture of the Reagan years, tucked away into a movie that works like a cross between The Blob and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. A mysterious white goo bubbles up from the ground, and is soon turned into a tasty dessert treat that America can’t get enough of. When a colourfully southern corporate saboteur named Mo Rutherford (Michael Moriarty) is hired by a conglomerate of dissatisfied snack-food competitors to learn the formula behind the titular treat, he soon discovers that The Stuff is a living organism out to take over the world. In his campaign to save humanity from The Stuff, Rutherford gathers a team of allies, including a kid whose entire family has become zombielike “Stuffies”, the guilt-ridden advertising wizard who helped make The Stuff a hit, a crazed militia leader (Paul Sorvino, five years before Goodfellas), and a rival snack-food proprietor (SNL’s Garrett Morris!).

The Stuff suffers a bit from an obviously low budget—the ambitious effects aren’t quite up to snuff, especially in the finale—but Cohen’s cheeky script makes up for it. Loads of popular brand names of the day are tucked into nearly every frame of the film, giving us a view of an America that was already begging to be taken over by a sinister brand name. The TV spots for The Stuff are a fun slice of dead-on Eighties commercial cheese, and Michael Moriarty is a lot of fun as the delightfully deadpan Rutherford…even if his hairdo makes him look like MacKenzie Astin. All in all, The Stuff is much better than any movie about killer yogurt has any right to be.


Carsten Knox said...

I wouldn't go so far as calling Eight Men Out or Lone Star mainstream. Compared to his genre work, sure. But Sayles is really the king of American indie autuers, who only once in his career ever directed a movie for a big studio because his movie ideas never jibed with the Hollywood machine. Unless he was brought in to polish Jurassic Park 4, which might still come out.

Dave Howlett said...

Well, mainstream in that they didn't have killer mutant babies or giant Aztec lizard gods in them. Maybe on the cutting room floor?

ArthurMacarthur said...

Man, didn't expect to enjoy that(DNotS) so much - what a fun flic..
I love that shot of him at the end.
Am letting yer blog decide my Hallowe'en movies this year, Dave - The Devil Rides Out tonite..

Crissy Dant said...

I don't know about you, but I can't seem to get enough...of the stuff!