Scarecrows was an almost entirely forgotten 1980’s horror movie until it was released on DVD a couple years ago. Now it’s gained a bit of a cult following and is gearing up fro a Blu-Ray release via Scream Factory! The idea of scarecrows as monsters is an inherently scary one. But it is a concept that has been criminally underused in film. Good horror features about scarecrows are hard to come by, which makes this one even more of a treat.
The picture picks up right after group of mercenaries have stolen three million dollars from military base Camp Pendleton and have hijacked a getaway plane. As they get closer to Southern waters and freedom, one of their crew steals the money and parachutes into a field. The mercenaries are forced to land the plane and hunt for the wayward group member.
They later take shelter in a nearby farmhouse. But the area in which they end up has a demonic past. The scarecrows that guard the property kill trespassers, and the victims of these scarecrows are turned into scarecrows themselves.
One of the most interesting things about Scarecrows and what sets it apart from other horror movies is its cast of characters. These people aren’t a group of horny-but-innocent teenagers lost on their own at night. There are two innocent hostages, yes, but one of them dies early on. And the rest of the characters are a pretty awful bunch. These are mercenaries with cold exteriors to hide their vulnerability.
They’re not overly sympathetic. It’s an interesting experiment to create a film with such an unlikable core group, and it’s surprising just how well it works. It inverses the morality so traditional to ‘80’s horror, when everyone felt horror movies were punishing the guilty and allowing the morally righteous to survive. In this tale, virtually no one is innocent.
This feature plays to this fairly well. The mercenaries are very self aware, for the most part they don’t think what they are doing is right but they do it anyway. When the action heats up and the scarecrows begin to appear, the fellas comment on the fact that they seem to be being punished. One of them even goes as far as to suspect that the plane actually crashed and they are now in Hell. The characters aren’t bland or uninteresting, and in some cases we actually start rooting for them to pull through, in spite of their inherent un-likabilty.
While Scarecrows does feature some impressive gore, it’s eclipsed by some great and outlandish makeup. The designs of the scarecrows themselves are chilling. They have all the traditional elements of your average scarecrow; spindly features, patchwork clothing, hay falling out their hands and necks, but they also feature skull-like (and even corpse-like) faces and other skeletal features. The overall effect is pretty eerie.
There are some interesting and unexpectedly gory sequences, including dismemberment and some almost Argento-esque stabbings but the scene that definitely stands out most is when a character is actually (violently) turned into a scarecrow.
Each death scene also cuts away to the faces of inanimate scarecrows hanging over the action, which is the scariest part about each of these sequences, because the scarecrows appear to be silent guardians, watching the events unfold without interacting. Somehow that’s almost more unnerving than scarecrows walking around and killing people.
The atmosphere in Scarecrows is also very impressive. Corn fields establish an environment rife with dread all on their own but the film makes effective use of its setting. It is moody, it’s dark, the score is low-key and not overdone. The radio narration also does a lot to establish mood early on and does a good job of providing the exposition so we can jump right into the story.
While the filmmaking is a bit clumsy at times and the budget definitely shows during the action sequences, when it gets going it really gets going. This picture could probably have started with the arrival at the farm house and been adequate, because the opening—which features the character Bert stealing the money, tossing a grenade inside the plane and parachuting out to leave everyone in the dust—is a bit much for the confines of this movie’s budget. What Bert sees early on leads him to become anxious and paranoid, as he keeps hearing the voices of the other mercenaries taunting him on the radio.
Although there are some vague hints scattered throughout, the film never makes it entirely clear where the scarecrows came from or how they came to life. Their supernatural origin and nature is left a bit of a mystery, which only makes them more endearing monsters.
The cinematography is one of the better things about Scarecrows. It plays a lot with light and shadow. Most of the film is shrouded in darkness and set against almost solid black, not to the point that the audience cannot see, but enough to make the audience feel on edge. The shadows are so important that they almost feel like characters in and of themselves. Cinematographer Peter Deming would go on to much bigger success with things like My Cousin Vinny, Austin Powers and frequent collaborations with director Wes Craven.
There’s something almost classical about Scarecrows. It has everything you come to expect from an ‘80’s horror movie, but it feels in some ways like a much earlier film. Some of the techniques (and acting, admittedly) bring to mind the early Roger Corman pictures, of which Scarecrows is a worthy successor.
It may not be a timeless classic of the genre, but Scarecrows is definitely a fun pseudo-slasher and one of the best to make use of the killer scarecrow concept. It’s in good company directly beside Dark Night of the Scarecrow. It is a fairly straightforward piece, but definitely worth a look. The DVD release is unfortunately bare-bones but hopefully this will be remedied by the upcoming Blu-Ray release. If so, the film’s small cult following could start to expand fairly rapidly. Until then, it’s good for a spooky evening’s entertainment.