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REVISITING DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW PDF Print E-mail
Written by By T. Ranstill   
Jul 02, 2004 at 02:00 AM
DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW: It's one of those movies that's always on at midnight somewhere across the country, it's been the annual "Halloween movie" on TBS for the past four years, and if you ask a friend about it in passing they'll remember seeing one of its early showings, usually as a child or teenager. Of course, they remember the film for a reason--it's scary!
In this Frank DeFelitta directed suspense film, a band of small town rednecks hunt down the local town idiot, Bubba, after he's mistakenly believed to have injured, and perhaps molested, a small girl. They follow him to a corn field, where he's taken refuge inside the clothes of a scarecrow and shoot him a dozen times. After they are acquitted of the murder, for lack of evidence, the man's mother (played by Jocelyn Brando, Marlon Brando's sister) declares "There are other justices in the world besides the law". And in turn each man is killed in a mysterious way--one by a thrashing machine, another smothered by grain in a silo--and it looks as if the scarecrow, possessed by the spirit of the slain man, is the culprit. Exactly who, or what, is responsible, is the movie's clincher.
A good horror film is a difficult thing to make, and a good Television horror film more so because it has to be propelled by its story and characters, rather than by being overly graphic. J.D. Feigelson, the film's writer and co-producer, explains why the film is still so effective after fifteen years and why it remains one of his favored accomplishments.
Originally from Beaumont, Texas, some eighty miles east of Houston, Feigelson lived in the country as a child and was captivated by creating movies with the family's 8mm home camera. "Obsessed, is a better word for it", he admits, "And I never stopped after that. 8mm to 16mm and off I went". At Lamar University he briefly studied engineering and then switched to drama. During those college years he worked at a local TV station, and on a summer job working at Wolper Productions in L.A., where he learned all he could working on documentaries, doing everything from sound recording to negative cutting, which eventually led to him starting his own production house. In the 70's this blossomed into a successful commercial company. Throughout this time his driving ambition was to one day make his own features.
"The way SCARECROW started," he explains, "Is that I had produced and directed a civil war piece based on an Ambrose Bierce short story called ONE OF THE MISSING, which eventually aired on a one hour show called THE PBS SUSPENSE SPECIAL. The film garnered a lot of attention and I wanted to follow up with it". In fact, the show's host, Ray Bradbury, was so impressed with young filmmaker that he offered to take him under his wing. "Ray became my teacher and mentor. Even today when I write something I send it to Ray for notes. I still do it! It's like someone who's your father, you're always their kid. I'm STILL learning and studying with him."
Another big influence on Feigelson was Rod Serling. "My company was hired to do a promotional film for the United Fund and the ad agency that wrote the script wrote it like a TWILIGHT ZONE and said wouldn't it be great to get Rod Serling to narrate it and I said "let's give it a try". So I called him, found his agent, and he was amenable to doing it." After the recording they went over to a little pub to have drinks and talk and Feigelson started asking him questions." I pumped him on how he did those TWILIGHT ZONE episodes--what worked, what didn't work, why the half-hours worked, why the hour-ones didn't. For hours we talked and talked and I came away knowing volumes about the TWILIGHT Zone--and he told me no one had ever asked him so many questions before!" To say the least, it was a tremendous education and a source of inspiration. Fifteen years later Feigelson would go to work on the new TWILIGHT ZONE and in '94 CBS hired him to write eight half-hour episodes, which were all built on Serling's information. "They ARE Rod Serling type TWILIGHT ZONE stories," Feigelson states. "Talking to Rod, that HAD an influence on SCARECROW...you never see the scarecrow move, never see it do anything until the end. It's very TWILIGHT ZONE-esque."
Feigelson went on to explain that the first draft of SCARECROW was very grim, thin on story, and that he simply wanted to get the scarecrow thing going. "I sent this draft to Bradbury and it came back a few days later all marked to heck." So he sat down, looked at the notes and redrafted it, thought at this point he didn't have the retarded guy or the little girl who's his friend. "It needed a lot more story," he admits, "And that's what Ray was harping on, 'it needs more story'". With this in mind Feigelson changed the whole structure of the script and sent it back to Ray--and it came back with just as many red marks and the comment "A good beginning, now start doing the work". The script went through a total of eight drafts. "When I finally got the eighth one back Ray said 'you're finished' and that's when I began to show it around".
The young screenwriter was still living in Houston and there met an attorney who was interested in show biz and had some connections with a TV station owned by Gaylord Productions. Their station manager sent it to their production company in L.A. and they optioned it, then took it to CBS, who passed on the script. The option came back and they optioned it again, only to be turned down again.
Prior to all this Feigelson had intended SCARECROW as a feature and in Texas tried raising money for it and couldn't. In fact, the scarecrow you see in the movie was built in his production company's studio, by the art director there. They built it as a prop to show investors, to get them excited about the project. Years later this "prop" would eventually make it into the movie. Feigelson also reveals that Strother Martin (SSST!) was originally going to star as the villain until he unfortunately passed away, and Alex Karras was in mind for the retarded man, but had become too busy of a star by then. These two pivotal roles would eventually go to Charles Durning (THE ROSARY MURDERS, HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS) in his first lone-starring role, and Larry Drake (DARKMAN, DR. GIGGLES), who parlayed that character into the show L.A. LAW years later. "That character WAS the character in SCARECROW," Feigelson remarks.
Some of the difficulties in securing a producer may have been that Feigelson's story was so atypical to television. He says, "TV traditionally likes a heroic main character and SCARECROW has the villain as the main character. Shakespeare did it with RICHARD III and had negative characters like HAMLET and MACBETH, but these stories are tragedies and American Cinema doesn't like to do tragedies."
Soon after the completion of the script, Feigelson moved to Los Angeles because things had started to pick up; an assignment to write a back up story for SALEM'S LOT, which was being developed as a series after the mini-series came out. Also, he had made the acquaintance of several people in the development department at CBS, such as Marion Brayton, which was very beneficial. So, with the script tucked under his arm, he tried to sell it a third time.
"I went to her," Feigelson says, "And said to her 'For some reason, maybe it's ego, I have a feeling no one has read this script because if you read it we'd be making this movie.' She didn't answer, just had this funny look on her face." He then said "My feeling is that if someone doesn't read this we'll both lose, it'll be a lose-lose situation." And saying this to her convinced her.
Not only did Brayton get back to him the next morning, she told him that she was going to the head of the movie department, Bill Self, and insist he read it. She also revealed that no one had read it, they just read the coverage, which was a paragraph that probably said something like "Small town bullies kill an innocent man, a scarecrow comes to life and seeks revenge". To make a long story short Bill Self read it and agreed it was a great script. "And," Feigelson adds, "They didn't change a word of it.
"I've only made two shows that I felt got as close as one can get in real circumstances. One is a new TWILIGHT ZONE episode I did called THE LITTLE PEOPLE OF KILLANEY WOODS--I got the right cast, the right sets, and it was the piece I set out to direct. The other one is SCARECROW because of the loyalty of the director, Frank DeFelitta (AUDREY ROSE, SCISSORS), had to the script. In fact, he had me on location the whole time and we would constantly consult, which is unusual for a television director to do with a writer. There was one place we had to change a piece of dialogue and he said he wouldn't change it without my okay. I rewrote a couple of lines. He was totally loyal to the piece." The finished DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW was ninety-percent of what the author visualized. "Ideally," he says, "It's best to write, direct, and produce because that way you get closer to your vision. Every time you have a different person in one of these slots they have their vision and it's not yours." He lets out a chuckle, "If you gave three filmmakers the same script you could probably release all three movies at the same time and give them different titles; they'd be that different!"
But for whatever reason, the final scene of the movie was never shot during the 18 day production. "The scarecrow coming to life at the end--well, that's the movie! You can't promise that payoff and not show it." So, he and the editor went to an insert stage and shot it. Feigelson did the camera work and the editor put his hand up the back of the life-size scarecrow prop and they worked it like a big puppet. "We did this because I didn't want it to have human motion. It moves kind of funny, not in a human way, with a stiffness about it. And when it leans over it's all done with the editor's arm inside it."
Feigelson goes on to say, "I remember the night we had the screening at the Writer's Guild Theater...afterwards it was very busy and I didn't have a chance to talk to Ray but I saw him across the room and he gave me a big wink. Later, he called me and said it was a wonderful movie."
The success of DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW led Feigelson to a ten year stint at CBS developing other movies. He spent a year on the new TWILIGHT ZONE and executive-produced the mini-series HOUSTON:THE LEGEND OF TEXAS, which starred Sam Elliott and Katherine Ross. It was during this time that he also produced and wrote another television horror classic, CHILLER, which tells the tale of a man resuscitated from cryonics, minus his soul. This film is often regarded by many critics as one of Wes Craven's better directorial efforts primarily because he was working with someone else's script. When pressed about this, he says "Wes is a great visualist and I consider myself a good structuralist and together we made up a good team on CHILLER."
Although the industry knows of the success of SCARECROW and it helped pave his way to working on many other projects, Feigelson has never been able to get anyone interested in the sequel. That's right, the story's not over. "When you do a sequel so far from the original it has to stand on its own, so I didn't bring the girl in it at all. Instead, I have a young couple that has moved into that town not knowing what had gone on. The husband is a writer and she's an interior decorator who has given up her business to support him. His writing isn't going so well and their relationship is being negatively influenced by this. One day she's out in the field, weeping because of an argument, and turns around and the scarecrow is there and she doesn't remember it being there. She confesses everything to it because she has no friends. Little by little things start happening. She finds an old tin can with flowers and thinks her husband brought it as a peace offering--but the scarecrow really did it. One day she's gone into the town library to rent books and the librarian says 'If you really want a good story you should know what happened in this town'. She begins to dig into it and tells her husband there's a better story here than the one he's writing. He gets interested and this brings their relationship back together as they start digging into what happened. And as they get closer there are other people involved who don't want this out--and the scarecrow comes to her aid at the very end, when the story is uncovered, and its spirit is released.
"But," Feigelson continues, "No one is interested in the sequel, though I think I could make it just as good as the original. It's hard to get this genre done, period, and even less of it is being done now. The closest thing you come to traditional horror on TV today is THE X-FILES and that's still science-fiction." Yet, that doesn't stop him. He currently has a movie in development at NBC called VORTEX, about a couple who stumble upon a town that's been replaced by duplicates from a flip side to our world because theirs has become unlivable AND his co-written feature script, ALMOST HUMAN, is at TRIUMPH RELEASING (the company that brought you SCREAMERS). "It's science-fiction," Feigelson says, "contemporary, about computers and a lot of our cold war technology that comes back to haunt us."
While Feigelson's SCARECROW sequel is yet to be shot, there have been two OTHER scarecrow movies made this past decade, SCARECROWS (1988) in which paramilitary robbers, after pulling off a heist, find themselves fighting homicidal scarecrows, and the recent direct-to-video NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW (1996), about a slain warlock taking vengeance on the town that violently killed him. Both of these stories, probably not that coincidentally, have very familiar looking straw men, down to the burlap sacks on their heads. When asked what he thinks of these other scarecrow movies he says, "My response is that imitation is the greatest form of flattery. I love it. There's only one DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW. If someone makes a better one, my hat off to them. I'd love to be the inspiration for it."
THAT movie has yet to be made.

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