Film Torments: Scarecrows (1988)

THIS TIME on Film Torments, Dan finally gets round to a Fuck You it’s January film if ever he saw one.

There are a variety of definitions for ‘cult film’, but most revolve around a piece of work that garners rabid attention from a particular subset of lunatics hard-wired to love shit. I am among them. When I browse through Netflix for bits and bobs, I regularly gravitate toward the predominantly Cannon/Bronson-populated “Films from the 1980s” or “Cult Films” sections. On a crisp, misty evening – after a loving return to Death Wish 3 – I found Scarecrows. Scarecrows, apparently, belongs to the latter of those two categories, but I’d never heard of people crowding midnight showings and hurling lines of dialogue back at the screen for it.

Upon watching the thing, I found out why. Scarecrows is a shoddily-edited, terribly-acted, incompetently-filmed deluge of murky boredom that’s dim in every commonly-accepted sense of the word. Its listless characters plod through grass and sheds and aeroplane sound-stages, gabbing about nothing, while lingering Dutch angles loom into frame like the missing reels of Battlefield Earth. But this is all standard fare for a swamp-grade independent horror flick, so what makes Scarecrows worthy of a look over The Asylum’s average fare?

I’m not entirely sure. The inimitable 80s sheen inevitably gives it a more humorously dated appeal – like fine Spar wine – but what fascinates me about Scarecrows is not so much the film itself, which isn’t even amusingly bad. It’s the general online consensus of its quality: Basically, everyone and their mother on the internet reckons it’s, bizarrely, pretty good. “Creepy atmosphere” tends to be the snappiest phrase that crops up in these assessments, and it’s not entirely inaccurate. The film takes place in near total darkness, the lights dimly faded to evoke spectral misdemeanours, but it never takes advantage of its dilapidated settings, more often relying on cheap sound effects and yawnsome jump-scares.

“With Denise Richards and Bonnie Tyler!”

Then again, Scarecrows isn’t meant to be a creeper feature, the kind that ratchets up the tension and sets the viewer’s teeth on edge. It is, first and foremost, a gore fest – pure slasher material – that substitutes the Jason Voorhees paradigm for a traditionally spooky farmyard appliance in the scarecrow. It’s actually rather surprising to think how few well-known scarecrow exploitation (crow-sploitation?) films there are, considering the commonly-accepted view on them being, “They’re fucking creepy.” The closest I can think of is Jeepers Creepers, and the titular villain in that is a scarecrow poseur, the twat, but the rest boil down to titles like Dark Night of the Scarecrow and Dark Harvest 2: The Maize. The Maize. That’s genius.

I digress.

Scarecrows’ relish for blood is as lopsided as its passive commitment to suspense, with much of the gore being lost in the darkness. The film needed to capitalise on 80s slasher audience desires: See someone get gutted. It’s the kind of schadenfreude that allowed the Elm Street and Friday the 13th franchises to rack up 21 films between them, and Scarecrows at least tries to follow in those footsteps by introducing a group of entirely disposable paramilitary goobers, but most of the kills are performed off-screen, negating the ghoulish thrill of watching a slasher in the first place. It doesn’t help that the acting is largely atrocious (not that you need Oscar grabbers for this kind of material), consisting primarily of vacant mumbling and repetitive name-calling.

“Bennett from Commando said no, so we got this guy.”

The exception is Michael David Simms as Curry, who gradually loses his shit over the course of the film before fully devolving into a raving, Private Hudson-esque loon. He’s the only actor who looks like he’s having a good time with the film’s inherent silliness; quite unlike director-writer-producer-editor William Wesley, whose strangely po-faced approach jars with the film’s absurd premise and idiot characters. There’s little to say of Wesley’s auteur style, considering it borrows liberally from other, better horrors, but the decision to blanket everything in dry ice and darkness – including aeroplane interiors – is bold, at least.

In fairness, Wesley has the sense to get the plot out of the way through extensive voice-overs – mercenary robbers fleeing from the authorities hit snags and end up in Scarecrow Land – but he doesn’t stop there. Presumably so we weren’t completely bored senseless by endless shots of people walking, Wesley insisted on voice-overs to explain characters’ thoughts at any given moment. It’s, somehow, even duller as a result, doing little to mask the film’s evident low budget, but at least there’s an effort to levy proceedings with a sense of progression and danger lurking beyond the starkness of the frame.

The fact that esteemed schlock-eologists (barf), Shout Factory, have released the thing on Blu-Ray might well speak for itself. A Shout Factory Blu-Ray is, for all intents and purposes, a cult seal of approval: everything from They Live! to Lifeforce to The Slumber Party Massacre (amidst classier titles like Sophie’s Choice) have found their way into its extensive library. This, suffice it to say, does not belong here, nor should it belong anywhere other than a bargain bin in Blockbuster. (RIP.)

I won’t begrudge the general online consensus, but Scarecrows’ limited charm extends to Simms’ performance and some impressive make-up effects. That’s about it. The rest is a tedious slog that takes the final ten minutes to muster, mercifully, a so-bad-it’s-good reaction. The other 70 minutes aren’t worth bothering with.

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