Sunday, May 19, 2013

Underrated Horror Gems--"Scarecrows"

     “Scarecrows” has to be the most obscure underrated horror gem I’ve written about.  As far as I can tell, this 1988 movie wasn’t even released theatrically.  Like a lot of low budget flicks it has a no-name cast, director, producer, etc.  To illustrate, the box for the VHS copy which I still own only touts the special makeup effects artist, Norman Cabrera, who went on to work on bigger films like “The X Files,” “Hellboy II,” and “Drag Me to Hell.”
     The plot of “Scarecrows” is fairly simple.  A group of five mercenary types (Corbin, Curry, Jack, Roxanne, and Burt) have committed an audacious armed robbery of military base Camp Pendleton (near San Diego, California).  Following this, they kidnap a father-daughter pilot team (Al and Kellie) and force them to fly them all to Mexico, and freedom.  However, along the way Burt double crosses his friends by dumping the money out and following in a parachute, D.B. Cooper style, while trying to blow up the plane with a grenade.  The gang manages to survive this murder attempt, and three of them follow Burt and the cash in their own chutes.  The remaining trio quickly land the plane, and join the search.
     Burt and the money have landed at an abandoned, condemned farm owned by the Fowler family.  And here’s where things get weird.  The group notices numerous strange scarecrows hanging about the decaying farm.  After a bit of a buildup it becomes clear that the scarecrows are animate, intelligent, and extremely violent.  The bodies start to pile up.  Will any of the gang survive to enjoy their ill gotten gains?
     This movie really works for me.  True, the production values are sometimes limited—the grenade explosion effect, for example, was noticeably fake looking.  And the actors aren’t Olivier or Hepburn.  However, these are pretty minor quibbles—the rest of the effects are decent.  And while the actors aren’t stellar, their roles aren’t that demanding, so they do an alright job.  The director wisely limits the scarecrows’ screen time to usually brief scenes, making them seem more mysterious, frightening, and convincing.  And I can see why the makeup guy (Cabrera) went on to bigger jobs—the violence and gore scenes are well done.  The robbers are equipped with night vision goggles, which are used effectively in several scenes.
     (SPOILERS AHEAD)  I think one of the movie’s strengths is its lack of explanation—we never find out why or how the scarecrows exist, or what they’re after.  The credits list their names as Jakob, Norman, and Benjamin Fowler, we see a photo of three bearded country type men in the house, but that’s about it.  Are the Fowlers possessing the scarecrows (and later the robbers, etc.), or are their corpses being possessed by evil spirits, “demonic demons” as character Jack says (redundantly) at one point.  The fact that the scarecrows are hanging on giant crosses (when they’re not running around and stabbing folks, that is), symbolically crucifixions, seems like an obvious bit of religious subtext, too.  Character Curry, after observing some of Burt-scarecrow’s bizarreness, throws out the thought that the group didn’t succeed in their robbery, and were shot by the military, and are now in Hell.  (There are a few problems with this—most notably, Al and Kellie weren’t part of the robbery, and therefore aren’t guilty and deserving of punishment, and according to the radio broadcast at the end Kellie survives.  Of course, Al and Kellie might be demons, too, and/or the broadcast might be false, or something, so you could still make the (far-fetched) case for the Hell theory.)  But my point is, this lack of explanation makes the movie more interesting, and frightening, as is often the case in horror and thriller films.  For example, the original 1978 “Halloween,” with its bare bones, vague, Michael Myers-is-evil-for-no-good-reason was vastly superior to Rob Zombie’s “Halloween” remake, where we see Michael was mostly the product of domestic abuse and bullying.  Or, to my mind, Hannibal Lector was a much more compelling, terrifying figure when you didn’t know why he was driven to kill and cannibalize people (we learn in the sequel and prequel to “Silence of the Lambs” that he was abused, and tortured as a child during World War II, and tricked into eating his beloved sister).  Understand, I’m not always against explanation in horror stories, but sometimes, less is definitely more.
     The scarecrows’ abilities and nature are similarly mysterious.  Sometimes they’re up on the crosses, sometimes not, and it’s confusing where these places actually are.  Some of the scarecrows seem like regular, real life, non-animate dummies, while others move around and kill.  We never see more than two or three at one time (and only three Fowlers are named), but we’re not sure of their exact number.  They’re very clever, too.  They’re able to mimic other peoples’ voices (sometimes verbally, sometimes perhaps telepathically (?)) and they’re able to “magically” influence inanimate objects.  The farm truck operates, temporarily, with no engine, objects like a flyswatter and a key appear and disappear, the house generator turns itself on and off, and Roxanne’s dice rolls keep coming up snake eyes.  And then there’s the weird way they reproduce, by gutting victims and stuffing them with straw (and in one case, money), and somehow apparently possessing them.  The very end alludes to another possibility—some sort of biological spread, akin to many zombie movies, as we learn that Dax the dog is evidently crazed (possessed?) after licking up Al-scarecrow’s blood.
     (END SPOILERS)  Alas, most of the people involved in “Scarecrows” didn’t go on to much more.  Michael Simms (Curry) and Richard Vidan (Jack) have been working fairly steadily since, albeit mostly on TV or in supporting movie roles.  Ted Vernon (Corbin) is apparently a minor Florida celebrity, as he’s been an auto dealer, pro boxer, producer, and occasional actor.  Probably the biggest name in the cast isn’t even seen—the broadcast announcer was Don Herbert, better known as TV science pioneer “Mr. Wizard.”
     Director William Wesley’s career stagnated.  He had an atypical start—born Jose Rolando Rodriguez in Cuba, he was an actor in the erotica series “Red Shoe Diaries” and a go-go dancer in Janet Jackson’s “Rhythym Nation 1814” music video.  IMDB only lists three more director credits—two obscure TV shows and a 2001 horror movie, “Route 666,” starring Lou Diamond Phillips and Lori Petty.  I did catch this last one, and while I found the idea potentially intriguing, ultimately I thought the finished product was lackluster.  (This movie also features robbers, and people returning from the dead in creative ways, so apparently Wesley has a type.)
     Therefore, if you’re looking for a fun, nasty, horror movie and/or you’re sick of the friendly, dim-witted Scarecrow from “The Wizard of Oz,” you might want to give this one a try.

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