Youth Restricted Viewing. Mostly what I remember about the changes that occurred when Blockbuster Video bought out Movie Emporium was the advent of Youth Restricted Viewing. It was sometime in 1990. I had already been on a steady stream of horror films for a long time. EVIL DEAD, SLEEPAWAY CAMP, ROCK N’ ROLL NIGHTMARE, DEMON WIND, so when I saw the cover box for this flick SCARECROWS sitting on the newly built, cream colored Blockbuster Video shelves sporting a glowing orange and blue sticker labeled “YRV” I knew I was in for a real treat. See, those of you trapped in the oversaturated “unrated” DVD market can’t really appreciate what it was like to come across an “unrated” horror film 17-years ago. This was literally like the holy grail for genre junkies and I was about to get strung out on some sweet Scarecrow action.
Sometimes it takes a little, and sometimes it takes a lot for a film to reach cult status. SCARECROWS got that way by sheer force of the fans that saw it. Gorehounds would tell gorehounds and so on and so forth until a legion of fanboys were desperate to get a copy of this film. I’ll never forget the first time I saw it on the bootleg table at a horror con. This is when you know the film you loved had an audience.
SCARECROWS is a simple story, with no set-up, no resolution and hardly an excessive amount of gore for a film that carried that ominous “unrated” tag. Dropping you right into the action the film informs you (via news reports) that a band of thieves have looted the Camp Pendleton payroll of $3,000,000 dollars and are en route to Mexico on a stolen cargo plane, the kidnapped pilot and his daughter in tow. This is the first sign of Director William Wesley (ROUTE 666) and Screenwriter Richard Jefferies’ (COLD CREEK MANOR) brevity. In a few short sentences they’ve introduced all we really need to know about the cast of the film, their backstory, and their motivations. When Bert (B.J.Turner) double-crosses the thieves—tossing the cash out the cargo door and dropping a live grenade into the fuselage before parachuting to safety—the story begins to unfold. The grenade fails to take out the flight and Bert lands in a rural cornfield—the only thing in site is a dilapidated farmhouse and fields of spooky scarecrows. As the remaining thieves land the plane and begin their search for Bert and the missing cash, they quickly discover that those creepy scarecrows and that old house are harboring the hellacious spirits of the Fowler family and that there is no way they’re gonna get out of those fields alive.
When I say that this film is all about atmosphere that is both the absolute truth and an egregious lie. It is fact because that is simply the way I remember the movie. Snowy grain filling up every frame of my 19 inch RCA television nearly two decades ago. It’s only incorrect in the beautiful anamorphic transfer spread across all 50 inches of my Pioneer Plasma television tonight. Sure the buffed up criminals running through the crops in search of their stolen loot are bathed in misty midnight shadows and moonlight hues, but that’s about it. The only atmosphere that SCARECROWS really provides is physical. The film never elicits much dread—meaning, you know that the Scarecrows are gonna kill everyone and so you’re just waiting for it to happen. The only really creepy moment of the film comes just minutes before the end. Where SCARECROWS really shines is sucking you into a story that seems hardly compelling. There are no clear cut good guys (though the pilot and his daughter seem like fine human beings), the bad guys are just straw-stuffed serial killers—and though the film eludes to the fact these Scarecrows are the Fowler family, pictured in the farmhouse, no one ever knows for sure (unless you read the closing credits). In fact what makes SCARECROWS so interesting is that it never bothers to explain a damn thing that is happening.
In a possibly telling moment, midway through the production Curry (Michael David Simms) begins to suspect that the crew never even escaped the shoot-out at Camp Pendleton. He speculates—in a moment of mental breakdown—that they all died right there, that this reality, this house, this field and these damned monsters are some kind of hell. Is Curry correct or has he completely lost it. The filmmakers never tell. Even as the final credit crawl kicks in and the voice-over news reports begin finishing the saga, the movie never truly gives up its secrets. It’s apt to leave you scratching your head or skipping back to Chapter one to start the whole thing over again—desperately searching for some clue as to what just happened. That kind of moviemaking stays with you. It’s the reason that SCARECROWS still delivers a satisfying viewing experience, years after it first crept on to video store shelves.
It’s no news to fans that have seen the film to know that the budget for SCARECROWS was non-existent. It’s the reason that words like atmosphere get bandied about in reviews. It’s a kind way of saying that the filmmaker made something out of nothing by using mood. But that can lead to a misconception about this production. As I said before, the story is the key to making this film work, but two other things are also apparent when watching the film.
The first is as obvious today as it was when the movie was originally released. The Scarecrows are badass. If they never moved off their wooden crosses they would still be some of the scariest creatures that I’ve ever seen on film. In fact, the static images that Wesley cuts to randomly throughout the film serve to punctuate the haunting presence of the monsters through little more than close-up stills of burlap-bag-faces staring vacantly at the screen in the darkness—it’s literally the stuff nightmares are made of and it’s courtesy of FX artist Norman Cabrera, who later worked on HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, KILL BILL and X-MEN 3.
The other thing that works surprisingly well—and those of us used to that grainy VHS transfers from a million viewings ago might never have noticed—is the Cinematography. The DVD really cleans this film up. For once, you can see what’s going on in those fields and while the production is still plenty dark, this time, the darkness shows you only what you need to see silhouetted by the soft moonlight. Back in the video days, the whole film was a muddled mess of grey. In fact the picture looks so good on DVD you might swear that it was a different film. After viewing the film in this new light, it’s easy to see how Director of Photography Peter Deming (who prior to SCARECROWS lensed EVIL DEAD II) managed to move from the micro-budget of SCARECROWS onto the award-winning sets of directors like David Lynch, where he shot LOST HIGHWAY and MULHOLLAND DRIVE.
If SCARECROWS has one lasting impact on horror cinema, it will be because, despite it’s lack of budget it stands up as an innovative and original film. Easily the best “Scarecrow” film in a sub-genre that has seen its share of painful entries (SCARECROWS GONE WILD ring a bell?). Director William Wesley may not have fared in Hollywood as well as some of his collaborators on this now, nearly legendary genre film, and that’s a shame. Still, perhaps the renewed interest will force some smaller studios to perk up and take notice of this lost classic and the man who made Scarecrows more frightening to moviegoers than they are to magpies. SCARECROWS 2 anybody? William, they might be calling you!