before we get to anything else… let me state a fact. scarecrows are freakin’ awesome. it’s a shame that they don’t appear in horror films more often and that when they do, they’re usually used ineffectively (yes, i’m looking at you, hallowed ground). the wizard of oz gave us the world’s most famous scarecrow, but horror is really where they belong. how many other agricultural tools primary function revolves around the ability to instill fear? zero. unless this thing cuts corn.
that said… the only thing more awesome than scarecrows would obviously be scarecrows in the 1980s, which brings us to this month’s selection in the final girl film club (see lots more about scarecrows there).
i admit it — i have a super-sized, two decade old crush on the movie scarecrows. i loved this movie in 1988 and i love it now, but i’m fully aware that this probably has more to do with when i saw it than the film’s overall quality. i was very excited when stacie over at finalgirl chose it as her film club selection this month. it was released on dvd a few months ago and i’m guessing that most horror fans are experiencing it for the first time since it wasn’t a huge success when it was first released (but has always had a loyal, if small following). if you’re seeing it for the first time now, then you will probably like the film but not fully understand why someone might lavish it with extraordinary praise and affection… but hopefully you can indulge my nostalgia-induced infatuation with this film as we take a closer look at it.
first of all… let’s look at the box cover. when i was 13 years old, browsing the local horror section at ‘video vision’ (located next door to the ‘food lion’ near my house), i distinctly remember first seeing the box for scarecrows. above and on the left is the vhs cover that i recall so vividly… on the right is the far inferior new dvd cover art. i can’t quite figure out exactly why the vhs cover is so effective… but i remember thinking “wow, that is one scary looking over-sized vhs video cassette sitting there, my friend. that movie will probably scare you so bad you’ll end up sleeping in the dryer.” maybe it’s the smoke in the background, the just slightly too-human looking face on the scarecrow or the fact that you can just tell that no retouching was done to it (it’s just a simple, unmanipulated photo), but that cover freaked me right out. i highly doubt the stylized “crows flying away from a ufo landing” dvd cover would have the same effect on a 13 year old me. i also think it has something to do with anticipation (something the movie expands on). in the original cover the scarecrow is just hanging there, but it seems like at any moment it could start moving, climb off that cross and come eat your liver… even though logically you know scarecrows don’t do such things. in the dvd cover the scarecrow is already walking around, machete raised high. while i will concede a moving scarecrow with a machete is more dangerous than an immobile scarecrow without one… the active scarecrow isn’t scarier because he’s already shown his hand. you know what he can and can’t do. fear comes from the anticipation of something creepy happening, not in the event itself.
i didn’t rent the movie the first time i saw the box… like texas chainsaw massacre at the time, i wasn’t sure i was ready for the terrors contained within that little plastic case. a few weeks later though i mustered some bravery and paid my $1.99 rental fee. and while i didn’t end up in the drier, my jeebies were appropriately heebied. the movie starts off with that same damn scarecrow from the cover that freaked me out, intercut with the credits. the camera moves slowly towards the scarecrow which, given how creepy he looks, wouldn’t be my choice of trajectories if i was there. the credits look rather similar to the the exorcist and the steady, somber music lets you know they’re not playing this one up for laughs — this scarecrow’s hardcore and is gonna fuck some people up.
the plot of the film is incredibly simple. a bunch of bad-ass military folks steal a bunch of money from a military base and hijack a private plane (along with the pilot and his daughter) and take off for mexico. one of the thieves double-crosses everyone and parachutes out of the plane with the money over a farm. the other thieves chase him down in an attempt to get the money back, but unfortunately this farm is inhabited by 3 animate scarecrows who like removing people’s body parts without permission. lots of people die in nasty ways and then the credits roll.
the film was directed by william wesley (which an imdb search reveals is also known as jose rolando rodriguez). i couldn’t find much information on wiliam/jose except this rather cryptic exchange on his imdb message board…
question: is william wesley still alive?
answer: i don’t know if he’s still alive but he had some serious problems in the mid-90s when i knew him.
you would think the combo of silly concept meets first time director who uses a pseudonym would result in a horrible film… but not in this case. somehow this film manages to create a taut, well-executed horror film from the strange blend of killer scarecrows, a creepy location and ultra-80s fashion. that’s about as close as i’d like to come to reviewing the film (you can find that elsewhere)… instead i’m just going to draw your attention to some of the more memorable aspects of this film.
made at exactly the time the mpaa was being particularly unreasonable towards violent content (e.g., the ridiculous amount of cuts required for friday the 13th part VII to secure an R rating, made the same year), scarecrows is surprisingly violent. whether it escaped the mpaa’s wrath because of its supernatural slant and low-profile or because the dvd release has incorporated missing footage… i’m not sure. in any case, there is some truly grotesque stuff here, most of which works because it hits you at such a visceral level. the gutting of a re-animated soldier (who has been hollowed out and stuffed with straw and money) is particularly cringe-inducing, but the kill that made me jump the most is shown in the video above. it’s a very simple effect achieved through misdirection and editing, but incredibly effective. the long, static shots of the scarecrows afterwards exemplifies the same tone and mood that the whole film exudes from beginning to end.
one thing i remember really liking when i first saw scarecrows was the frequent use of night-vision. maybe because its use in film wasn’t very common yet (i.e., pre silence of the lambs)… i found that green filter to be very effective in conveying “these are some hi-tech army dudes with state-of-the-art weaponry.” odd how something as simple as basically covering the lens in colored saran wrap could create such a profound effect in the 80s.
in 1988 i thought scarecrows was an ultra-realistic portrayal of the military. looking at the film now, either the military was very different then or, more likely, i was a moron. the hair… that girl’s makeup… those radio-shack headsets… that pellet gun… that beard… that red neckerchief. omg, that red neckerchief! and i’m fairly certain that the leader of the military thieves is wearing a single diamond earring in his left ear. i don’t think they let you do that… although, in his defense, they don’t let you steal millions of dollars either and he managed that.
if the neckerchief or roxanne’s perm (the blond soldier chick) didn’t tip you off to the timeframe of the film, there’s another way to very accurately pinpoint a film’s origins in the late 1980s. far more accurate than carbon dating, the presence of rolled jeans is a dead give-away that your film is set in 1989 (+/- 3 years). the pilot’s daughter (with her oh-so-bouncy hair) is sporting a very nicely rolled pair of jordache jeans (see above). if you’re too young to remember (or have unconsciously blocked out the memory of) rolled jeans, please see here.
about half way into the film, roxanne begins touching up her makeup. given that she’s currently standing in a less-sanitary version of the texas chainsaw massacre farm house, is involved in a crime consisting of grand larceny, murder and kindnapping and should really be either watching the kidnapped girl or looking out for murderous scarecrows… vanity seems like it should be lower on her list of priorities. of course, with the film’s focus on how greed and personal self-interest equates with having your spleen removed forcibly — this was probably intentional. still, it’s an odd scene… particularly when roxanne offers the makeup case to her kidnapped prisoner, asking “rouge? it will make you look happier.”
in addition to the utterly creepy mood and pacing of this film, it has some phenomenal pieces of dialogue. one of my favorite occurs during the scene pictured above where one of the soldiers, taking a break from trying to recover his money while avoiding rampaging straw monsters, decides to chow down on some corn-on-the-cob.
soldier: want an ear? best way to eat corn.
girl: get away from me, you cold-blooded bastard.
other great writing examples include…
soldier #1: i think this place is possessed by demonic demons.
soldier #2: your head’s gonna be possessed by the butt of my gun if you don’t shutup.
soldier: all that time you were just jacking us off with sandpaper. kick his ass!
and my personal favorite…
soldier: (referring to scarecrows) they’ll rip your tight little asshole out before you can say que fucking pasa.
one rather refreshing change from the norm is that the monsters here are given no real explanation or consistent motivation. you might think this would be a problem, but it’s really not… i’ve always loved films like tremors where an explanation for the creature is left out because the writers know that no possible explanation would really be satisfactory. here, a few hints are dropped as to the origins of the scarecrows, but ultimately it’s left ambiguous. above are the three “mangy looking guys” who used to own the house (these two shots are shown constantly throughout the film… in one the photo is cracked, in the other it’s not. spooky.). one of the soldiers discovers some “black magic” stuff in one of the rooms and later says “these guys died and no one told them.” apart from that… they’re just killer scarecrows. it’s unclear what they want (sometimes they keep body parts, but mostly they just scare and then kill anyone they meet). even the rules of what they can and can’t do aren’t very clear as they appear to be very physical creatures (explosions can hurt or destroy them), yet they can read minds, mimic voices (and a dog bark), cause out-of-service phones to ring, make decapitated heads talk and turn on/off generators magically. is that a demon, a monster or a ghost? i dunno… but this film plays like a haunted house ride with each scene using whatever rules it wants to be most effective — and for the most part, that works.
the scarecrows certainly aren’t traditional ghosts, as when jack (seen above) is re-animated by the scarecrows and sent back to kills his friend, he is stopped by a wooden door. i don’t know how murderous scarecrows could make a dead body walk and talk… and i don’t know why such a creature would feel the need to put on night-vision goggles over a towel… but the end effect is pretty spooky. i remember being utterly creeped out when curry (the not-dead-yet friend above) is hiding in a locked room and the possessed-jack creature is calmly asking from the other side of the door, “come on, curry. open the door. gee, these fucking things. they’re definitely demonic. you’re not one of them, are you curry? tell me you’re not.” it’s as if jack isn’t fully aware of what’s happened to him or, more likely, it’s just an attempt to drive the already butterfly-net-worthy curry out of his mind.
while my 13 year old self didn’t notice any grand deviations from reality in the film, the much older me picked up on a few. one of my favorites bits occurs at the film’s finale as the last remaining soldier uses a hand grenade to reduce himself and the last scarecrow to their respective bits of flesh and straw. forget the fact that hand grenades tend to make quite a bang and would probably cause quite a bit of damage to a small, 2 engine plane in flight… forget that the pilot of the plane is about 8 feet away and suffers no harm. no, what i noticed was the pilot’s dog. being a dog owner, i know that clapping your hands, opening a soda or thunder from a storm 10 miles away are all things that make dogs scurry away looking for a bed to hide under in a matter of milliseconds. i love this dog’s rather nonchalant reaction to a grenade exploding just a couple feet away…
so, to close… scarecrows rocks my socks, and if you haven’t seen it and you like quirky, moody 80s horror… go rent it or something.
bonus animated gif to make you go “gah!”
I’ll admit that before watching Scarecrows for this Final Girl film club review, I knew very little about the film, aside from its reputation as a cult classic. After watching it, I was instantly intrigued so I did a quick background check on the film’s director, William Wesley, and became even more intrigued. Aside from his 2001 film Route 666, plus a bit part in Showtime’s Red Shoe Diaries and a surprising role as a go-go dancer in the video for Janet Jackson’s 1989 “Rhythm Nation 1814,” this film seems to be Wesley’s only real claim to fame. I’ll wager that Scarecrows probably got lost in that vast 80s sea of so many Kruegers, Jasons, Michaels and other now famous slashers. Horror fans are fortunate that Scarecrows has a strong enough cult following to warrant its 2007 release on DVD. I suppose I could spend the bulk of this review wondering what in the heck happened to William Wesley. There’s a post at his IMDB message board that asks the existentially riddled question: “is William Wesley still alive?” I even thought that he just might be William “Worldwide” Wesley, the famous Detroit-area NBA basketball promoter, but, alas, they’re not the same person, so the world may never know what really happened to Wesley. I am usually not given to this sort of sentimentality, but I can’t help it; this film makes me nostalgic.
The plot of Scarecrows is simple enough, which is to the film’s credit. Scarecrows begins with a team of commandos who steal money from Fort Pennington. They hijack a plane and kidnap its pilot and daughter to make their escape, but their plans go awry when they are double crossed by their fellow commando, Bert, who parachutes from the plane with all their money into the middle of the creepiest farm country you’re ever likely to see. Wesley is able to build an effectively spooky atmosphere with this very simple set. The team’s leader, Curry, then leads the attempt to find Bert and recover the money. Things go from bad to worse as the farm’s scarecrows come to life and have at them one by one.
There’s not much to be said, really, for the plot, but I loved every minute of this film, largely because it made me miss the 80s, the decade in which I really fell in love with film. For instance, I had forgotten how 80s films made EVERYTHING look so glamorous: boardrooms, vampires, and even commandos were all sexy cool.
Don’t get me wrong. Scarecrow’s Jack and Roxeanne can kick as much ass as Bennet (from 1988’s Commando), but that’s not going to stop them from at least trying to be stylish while going about it. Bennet is one of the creepiest commandos you’re likely to ever encounter, and yet his chainmail reminds me of an outfit you’d find in Flashdance . Jack looks like he’s just come from the 1982 video for “Come on Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners. And the conspicuous height and volume of Roxeanne”s hair would make her right at home on the set of “Dynasty” . Even the all-American badass Rambo wore the fashionable red headband as he tore his way through the jungle. Really, the entire tone and tenor of the entire decade began with Allan Parker’s 1980 Fame, a film about passion, sacrifice, and well-used fashion accessories. I like dark and gritty realism as much as the next guy, but sometimes I do miss all that strange and surreal neon-glow of the 80s.
Of course, aside from big poofy hair and handkerchiefs, 80s films were also prone to include morality tales, no doubt in part due to Reagan’s revival of 50s-style cold war rhetoric with its battle lines between good and evil . I’m not at all interested in films that get preachy, but the 80s films were rather complex in their depictions of moral struggle. 80s films such as Scarecrows and 1988’s Pumpkinhead are less explicit than, say, Invasion of the Body Snatchers in depicting a hard line between good and evil, but instead depict a far more ambivalent spirit of vengeance.
As in Pumpkinead, the moral and political concept of “blowback” is a subtext found in Scarecrows. Like the Pumpkinhead creature, the scarecrows are, as Jack overstates it, “demonic demons” that punish you for your particular sins and repay violence and greed in kind. For instance, they stuff Bert with the money he so coveted. They kill the otherwise innocent pilot after he gives into temptation and goes for the money. The message, in other words, is that the 80s might be a decade of high-fashion and conspicuous consumption, but greed is sinful, and the wages of sin are death, or something like that. In addition their drive to punish, the scarecrows mimic the personalities of those who encounter them. They torment Curry by mimicking the voice of his recently killed friend, and, in a particularly nasty instance of irony, they give Jack his beloved harmonica just before killing him. Had the commandos shown up with smiles on their faces and songs in their heart, then perhaps it could have all turned out differently, but, alas, human greed is too powerful.
There is, however, an equally clear redemptive spirit to Scarecrows. Al, the last commando standing, learns his lesson too late to save himself, but soon enough to save the innocent Kellie by sacrificing himself with a hand grenade that destroys the last remaining scarecrow. I love the daring of recent horror films such as the Wolf Creek or the satirically excessive violence of such films as The Devil’s Rejects, but the unabashed clarity and simplicity of Scarecrows was a welcome tonic. Still, the special effects in Scarecrows were as gut-wrenching as anything you’ll likely to see in recent horror films, and serve as a reminder that sometimes the old “less is more” cliché is exactly right.
The allegory in the fact that Roxeanne’s hand is stabbed while reaching for the money is clear enough, just as the fact that Jack is literally blinded as to what’s happening to him, but what makes this film so horrifying is that the scarecrows have a knack for striking your most vulnerable parts. For instance, in one scene, they repeatedly stab poor Al in the exact same spot in his leg.
This film could have easily devolved into b-grade camp, and the fact that it doesn’t is a real testament to Wesley’s success in directing this film. Not only are the scarecrows the creepiest horror villains I’ve seen in a very long time, the setting is effective, the pacing is appropriately slow without ever seeming to drag, and the soundtrack is moody and suspenseful. I especially like the envelope structure of the film. We begin with a shot of a scarecrow as it slowly zooms in to a close up, while a radio broadcast informs us about the robbery.
At the film’s conclusion, we return to the close up of the scarecrow as the camera slowly pulls back and a radio broadcast tells us that Kellie has barely survived her ordeal. This sounds simple, but the effect is rather chilling. It’s the film’s attempt to return us to normalcy, to restore order, but the implication is that after-effects will likely continue. Shakespeare liked to do something similar at the end of his plays. Fortinbras shows up at the end of Hamlet to restore order to Denmark. But we all know it’s too late and that the violence we’ve just witnessed will stay with us long after we leave the theater. Of course I’m not saying that Scarecrows approaches anything the Bard ever wrote, but it’s fun, scary stuff and an oddly intriguing reminder that I really do miss the 80s.