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The universe of movie monsters is well-populated, and ever-expanding to boot. But still, it is surprising that there are fewer appearances of what Cilian Murphy's psychopath psychiatrist character Jonathan Crane classifies in the film Batman Begins as a Jungian archetype: the Scarecrow. And let's face facts here, scarecrows can be conceptually terrifying, in the same sense as any man made monster, from the golem of Jewish lore to Frankenstein's monster to the entire history of robots gone murderously bad. We yearn for control over our world to the point of making terrifying bargains against nature, and sometimes these backfire horrifically. But, frightening as they may be, it is hard to see superviruses brought about by overuse of antibiotics, or carcinogenic pollutants seeping into our air and water. But man-sized constructs, those we can relate to at the most visceral and experiential level. Naturally, that is why Doctor Crane has chosen the Scarecrow as his own mask of terror.

The Wizard of Oz may have muted the fear factor of the scarecrow for a few generations, what with Ray Bolger's dopey slapstick performance of the friendly character. But there has always remained enough sinister undercurrent to allow scarecrows to be used more menacingly where the desire strikes. In the Doctor Who two parter memorializing the profane and violent exploits of the Family of Blood, the title villains somehow press into their brutal service an army of scarecrows with which to attack an English school. And scarecrows make a brief but memorable appearance in the 'all Hell breaks loose' finale of The Cabin in the Woods. And to those who are fans of schlock horror, the scarecrows popping up in The Cabin in the Woods are instantly recognizable as the menace in the 1988 film which is the subject of this review: Scarecrows.

The setup to Scarecrows, conveyed largely during the opening credits, is seemingly a pedestrian actioner. A five-man band of commando types has stolen millions of dollars from a military base, and kidnapped a pilot to force him to fly them to freedom, using the pilot's daughter as a hostage to command his obedience. But duplicity is afoot. One of the thieves, Burt, demonstrates the lack of honor amongst his kind by up and tossing the stolen money out of the plane and parachuting after it. He lands in a dark and rural field, silent but for the whipping of the wind. Equipped with night vision goggles, Burt soon finds an ominous abandoned house -- the Fowler house, we will soon learn from the mailbox -- surrounded by ominous looking scarecrows and and ominous barbed wire fence. Burt searches the house for anything he might use to escape his situation, and suddenly there's a key to a pickup truck in the yard. So onto the truck he goes, but once Burt starts the truck, the headlights reveal his position -- three of Burt's colleagues have regrouped and parachuted after him, and the one remaining on the plane order the pilot to circle around, and eventually to land, so they can pursue their traitor and regain their plundered cash.

Incidentally, while all of this is going on, there's a steady stream of sort-of expository dialogue, with the rest of the team chattering various threats to Burt over the radio, and Burt's own thoughts broadcasting to the audience as a voiceover. Burt takes off in the truck, running over one of the yard scarecrows, while the others appear to look on. By the time Burt's ex-partners arrive at the house, Burt is nowhere to be found. As it happens, Burt is having engine trouble; to be specific, when the truck grinds to a halt, and he pops the hood to see what's wrong, and finds that there is no engine. Burt goes on foot, with the few bags of cash he can carry, and then, creeped out, starts shooting at the scarecrows which seem to be everywhere.

And then bloody things happen. So, when Burt finally does show up at the house where some of his gang is waiting -- well, let's just put it this way, he's no longer himself. His cohorts beat him up for a while, and he just sort of takes it without complaint; but then he essentially 'comes to life' and starts tossing them through windows and such. They figure out, once they've brought him down with firepower and sharp objects, that he has actually been gutted and mutilated, made into a stuffed-with-straw-and-cash scarecrow of himself. The situation degrades from there, the group (primarily at the prompting of their one female member, who's greed seems incalculable) stupidly opting to stay and try and find the money despite having seen their former friend turned into a freakish monster. Obviously, more blood will be spilled -- especially since the scarecrows are not only bulletproof, but apparently able to imitate voices as well -- but who (if anyone) will survive?

Neither the acting nor the script is quite up to b-movie standards, and the entire thing being set in the course of a dark night's fright makes it sometimes hard to see exactly what's going on. But this movie combines some so-good-its-bad moments with surprisingly good costumery, a fearsome looking monster contingent, believable special effects, and some genuinely gruesome and scary moments. At the end of the day, watching the film inevitably makes the horror-seasoned viewer think of a few dozen improvements which could have been made to the script to elevate this to a truly excellent contribution to the genre. And, in a sense, just having those moments play out in your head makes this viewing experience almost like watching two films at the same time -- the passably workmanlike effort that was, and what-could-have been.

For all of its flaws, I recommend giving Scarecrows a watch on a popcorn-filled Halloween eve, to banish friendly scarecrows from your thoughts and instead restore them to their rightful place as monstrous fiends, to be feared alongside your vampires and werewolves and mummies (and perhaps more than the modern crop of teen-angsty vampires, in any event). If you're keen to see the flick, somebody has been kind enough (and sufficiently dismissive of copyrights) to post the entire thing to YouTube, for your viewing pleasure:

Part 1 of 9 -- Part 2 of 9 -- Part 3 of 9
Part 4 of 9 -- Part 5 of 9 -- Part 6 of 9
Part 7 of 9 -- Part 8 of 9 -- Part 9 of 9

Enjoy!!

For Children of the Night: The 2012 Halloween Horrorquest -- definitely a film which take you to a 'bad place'!!

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