Bubba’s Revenge: Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981, directed by Frank De Felitta)


Dude, this movie.

Charles Durning plays Otis P. Hazelrigg, a postman in a small town who has an unhealthy interest in a ten year-old girl named Marylee (Tanya Crowe).  When Marylee is mauled and nearly killed by a dog, Otis decides that she was attacked by Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake), a mentally challenged man who has the mind of a child.  With Otis and his redneck friends looking to lynch him, Bubba’s mother disguises him as a scarecrow and tells him to stand out in a field and not move.  When Otis and his friends discover Bubba hiding, they all shoot him until he’s dead.  Otis puts a pitchfork in Bubba’s hands and tells the police that Bubba was attacking them and they didn’t have any choice but to shoot him.

Otis thinks that he’s gotten away with murder but he’s wrong.  After Marylee sings a song in the same field where Bubba was killed, Otis’s friends start dying.  One is suffocated in a grain silo.  Another falls into a thresher.  Before each one dies, they report seeing a scarecrow on their property.  Otis thinks that Bubba’s mother is behind the murders but what if Bubba has actually come back to life?

Dark Night of the Scarecrow will mess up your mind, give you bad dreams, and leave you with a lifelong phobia o scarecrows.  It’s that scary.  I remember that they used to frequently show this movie on TV when I was  growing up and even the commercials were scary.  (The part of the movie that always messed with me were the shots of Bubba’s frightened eyes darting around underneath the scarecrow mask.)  Scarecrows are naturally creepy and the movie’s atmosphere is unsettling but the most frightening thing about Dark Night of the Scarecrow is Otis and the redneck lynch mob that he puts together.  Otis is a thoroughly loathsome character and Charles Durning goes all out playing him.  Otis is a civil servant, which gives him some prestige in the town but he uses that prestige to bully Bubba and harass Marylee.  His concern with Marylee especially feels wrong and the movie does not shy away from the subtext of his interest.  The scarecrow might frighten you but you will absolutely loathe Otis and everyone who follows him.

Dark Night of the Scarecrow was made for television but it’s just as good as any theatrical release.   It is also might be the first movie to feature a killer scarecrow.  Several have been made in the years since but Dark Night of the Scarecrow was the first and it’s still the best.

A Scene That I Love: The Opening of Scarface


Produced by Martin Bregman, directed by Brian De Palma, written by Oliver Stone, and starring Al Pacino, the 1983 remake of Scarface is one of the best-known, most iconic gangster films ever made.  It opened to mixed reviews but it’s gone on to be recognized as a classic.  Everyone can quote the script:  “Say hello to my little friend!” “In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.”  “Say goodnight to the bad guy!”

Scarface starts with one of my favorite opening scenes of all time.  Powered by Giorgio Moroder’s score, the opening credits of Scarface play out over footage of the real-life Mariel boatlift.  Combined with footage of Fidel Castro ranting that Cuba does not need the Marielitos, this opening gives real-world credibility to everything that follows.  We then segue from the actual boatlift to Al Pacino as Tony Montana, answering questions with that shit-eating grin on his face.

Listen to the interrogation scene carefully and you’ll hear both Charles Durning and Dennis Franz, dubbing the lines of the actors who played the immigration agents.

Embracing The Melodrama Part III #7: True Confessions (dir by Ulu Grosbard)


The 1981 film True Confessions tells many different stories.

It’s a story about Los Angeles.  It’s not necessarily a story about Los Angeles as it exists.  Instead, it’s a story about Los Angeles as we always imagine it.  It’s the late 40s and, having vanquished the Nazis in Europe, men are returning to California and looking for a new life.  Meanwhile, aspiring starlets from across the country flood into Hollywood, looking for stardom.  It’s a city where glitz and ruin exist right next to each other.  It’s the mean streets that were made famous by Raymond Chandler and, decades later, James Ellroy.

It’s a murder mystery, one that is based on one of the most notorious unsolved homicides of all time.  The bisected body of woman named Lois Fazenda has been found in a vacant lot.  When the newspapers discover that Lois was both a prostitute and a Catholic, she becomes known as “the Virgin Tramp.”  One need not have an encyclopedic knowledge of unsolved crimes to recognize that Lois Fazneda is meant to be a stand-in for Elizabeth Short, the tragic and infamous Black Dahlia.

It’s a story about corruption.  Crooked cops.  Rich perverts.  Greedy politicians.  Sinful clergy.  They’re all present and accounted for in True Confessions.  As quickly becomes apparent, Los Angeles is a city where you can do anything as long as you have the money to pay the right people off.

And finally, it’s a film about two brothers.  Tom and Des Spellacy grew up in a strong Irish Catholic family but, as they got older, their lives went in different directions.  Tom (Robert Duvall) became a detective, the type who is willing to cut corners but who, in the end, takes his job seriously.  Des (Robert De Niro) entered the priesthood and is now a monsignor in the Los Angeles diocese.  Des is ambitious and he has a powerful mentor, Cardinal Danaher (Cyril Cusack).

Though Tom and Des have gone their separate ways, they are still linked by Jack Amsterdam (Charles During).  To the public, Jack is a wealthy and respected businessman.  However, Tom and Des both know the truth.  When Tom first joined the department, he worked as a bagman for Jack and he knows that Jack made most of his money through a prostitution ring.  Des know that Jack donates to the Church as way to cover up his own corruption but Des looks the other way.  The Cardinal, after all, wants Jack’s money.

When Tom starts to investigate Lois’s death, it doesn’t take him long to figure out that Jack is probably the one responsible.  Meanwhile, Jack and his lawyer (Ed Flanders) start to pressure Des to convince his brother to let the case go.  Finding justice for Lois Fazneda could mean the end of both Tom and Des’s career.

Based on a novel by John Gregory Dunne, which was adapted into a screenplay by Dunne and Joan Didion, True Confessions is an imperfect but intriguing film.  This is one of Robert Duvall’s best performances and he brings a manic edge to the role that keeps the audience off-balance.  In the role of Jack Amsterdam, Charles Durning is the epitome of casual corruption and Burgess Meredith does a good job as an aging priest.  On the other hand, Robert De Niro seems strangely uncomfortable in the role of Des and you never quite believe that he and Duvall are actually brothers.  Director Ulu Grosbard does a good job of creating a proper noir atmosphere but, at the same time, he denies the audience the dramatic climax to which the film appears to be building up to.

That said, for whatever flaws True Confessions may have, it’s an always watchable and thought-provoking film.

A Movie A Day #235: Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977, directed by Robert Aldrich)


In Montana, four men have infiltrated and taken over a top-secret ICBM complex.  Three of the men, Hoxey (William Smith), Garvas (Burt Young), and Powell (Paul Winfield) are considered to be common criminals but their leader is something much different.  Until he was court-martialed and sentenced to a military prison, Lawrence Dell (Burt Lancaster) was a respected Air Force general.  He even designed the complex that he has now taken over.  Dell calls the White House and makes his demands known: he wants ten million dollars and for the President (Charles Durning) to go on television and read the contents of top secret dossier, one that reveals the real reason behind the war in Vietnam.  Dell also demands that the President surrender himself so that he can be used as a human shield while Dell and his men make their escape.

Until Dell made his demands known, the President did not even know of the dossier’s existence.  His cabinet (made up of distinguished and venerable character actors like Joseph Cotten and Melvyn Douglas) did and some of them are willing to sacrifice the President to keep that information from getting out.

Robert Aldrich specialized in insightful genre films and Twilight’s Last Gleaming is a typical example: aggressive, violent, sometimes crass, and unexpectedly intelligent.  At two hours and 30 minutes, Twilight’s Last Gleaming is overlong and Aldrich’s frequent use of split screens is sometimes distracting but Twilight’s Last Gleaming is still a thought-provoking film.  The large cast does a good job, with Lancaster and Durning as clear stand-outs.  I also liked Richard Widmark as a general with his own agenda and, of course, any movie that features Joseph Cotten is good in my book!  Best of all, Twilight’s Last Gleaming‘s theory about the reason why America stayed in Vietnam is entirely credible.

The Vietnam angle may be one of the reasons why Twilight’s Last Gleaming was one of the biggest flops of Aldrich’s career.  In 1977, audiences had a choice of thrilling to Star Wars, falling in love with Annie Hall, or watching a two and a half hour history lesson about Vietnam.  Not surprisingly, a nation that yearned for escape did just that and Twilight’s Last Gleaming flopped in America but found success in Europe.  Box office success or not, Twilight’s Last Gleaming is an intelligent political thriller that is ripe for rediscovery.

A Movie A Day #167: Stick (1985, directed by Burt Reynolds)


Stick (Burt Reynolds) is a veteran car thief who has just gotten out of prison.  No sooner has Stick arrived home in Florida then he accompanies his friend, Rainy (Jose Perez), on a drug deal that goes bad.  When Rainy is killed, Stick goes into hiding.  He manages to get a stable job, working as a chauffeur for an eccentric millionaire (George Segal).  He gets a new girlfriend (Candice Bergen) and starts to bond with his teenage daughter (Tricia Leigh Fisher).  Stick wants to go straight but, before he can, he knows that he has to confront the men who murdered Rainy.

Stick starts out strong.  The first half of the film finds Burt, who was often as underrated as a director as he was as an actor, in pure Sharky’s Machine mode, mixing the steamy Florida atmosphere with quirky character comedy and hardboiled action.  Adapting his own novel, Elmore Leonard wrote the screenplay and Stick seems like a classic Leonard hero, a criminal with his own moral code.  

But then Stick falls apart during the second half and it becomes obvious why both Reynolds and Leonard often cited this film as being one of the biggest disappointments of their careers.  Universal Studios disliked Burt’s first cut of the film and brought in a second screenwriter, who beefed up the action scenes and added the subplot with Stick’s teenage daughter.  Reynolds reshot the second half of the movie, no longer playing Stick as a tough criminal but instead as another variation on the Bandit.  The end result is a very disjointed movie, with Burt looking bored.

It does not help that the movie’s main villain is played by Charles Durning, who wears an orange fright wig and several Hawaiian shirts.  Durning was an actor who gave many great performances but never was he as miscast as when he played a drug dealer in Stick.

A Movie A Day #141: Breakheart Pass (1975, directed by Tom Gries)


California.  The 1870s.  Sheriff Pearce (Ben Johnson) boards a train with his prisoner, an alleged outlaw named John Deakin (Charles Bronson).  The train is mostly full of soldiers, under the command of Major Claremont (Ed Lauter), who are on their way to Fort Humboldt.  The fort has suffered a diphtheria epidemic and the soldiers are supposedly transporting medical supplies.

However, it’s not just soldiers on the train.  There’s also Gov. Fairchild (Richard Crenna) of Nevada, his fiancée (Jill Ireland), the Reverend Peabody (Bill McKinney), and a conductor named O’Brien (Charles Durning).  As the train continues on its journey, it becomes obvious that all is not as it seems.  People start to disappear.  A man is thrown from the train.  Two cars full of soldiers are separated from the train and plunge over a cliff.  There is also more to Deakin than anyone first realized and soon, he is the only person who can bring the murderers to justice.

In both real life and the movies, Charles Bronson was the epitome of a tough guy, so it’s always interesting to see him playing a more cerebral character than usual.  There are some exciting and surprisingly brutal action scenes, including a scene where Bronson fights a cook (played by former professional boxer Archie Moore) on top of the speeding train, but Breakheart Pass is more of a murder mystery than a typical action film.  If Louis L’Amour and Agatha Christie had collaborated on a story, the end result would be much like Breakheart Pass.  Bronson spends as much time investigating as he does swinging his fists or shooting a gun.  It’s not a typical Bronson role but he does a good job, showing that he could think as convincingly as he could kill.  Acting opposite some of the best character actors around in the 70s, Bronson more than holds his own.

Apparently, back in 1975, audiences were not interesting in watching Bronson think so Breakheart Pass was a disappointment at the box office and it is still not as well known as Bronson’s other films.  However, even if you’re not already a fan of the great Bronson, Breakheart Pass is worth discovering.

Film Review: The Hindenburg (dir by Robert Wise)


80 years ago, on May 6th, 1937, the Hindenburg, a German airship, exploded in the air over New Jersey.  The disaster was not only covered live by radio reporter Herbert Morrison (whose cry of “Oh the humanity!” continues to be parodied to this day) but it was also one of the first disasters to be recorded on film.  Looking at the footage of the Hindenburg exploding into flame and sinking to the ground, a mere skeleton of what it once was, it’s hard to believe that only 36 people died in the disaster.  The majority of those who died were crew members, most of whom lost their lives while helping passengers off of the airship.  (Fortunately, the Hindenburg was close enough to the ground that many of the passengers were able to escape by simply jumping.)

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of speculation about what led to the Hindenburg (which has successfully completed 63 flights before the disaster) exploding.  The most commonly accepted explanation was that it was simply an act of God, the result of either lightning or improperly stored helium.  Apparently, there was no official evidence found to suggest that sabotage was involved but, even back in 1937, people loved conspiracy theories.

And really, it’s not totally implausible to think that the Hindenburg was sabotaged.  The Hindenburg was making its first trans-Atlantic flight and it was viewed as being a symbol of Nazi Germany.  One of the ship’s passengers, Captain Ernest Lehman, was coming to the U.S. in order to lobby Congress to give Germany helium for their airships.  With Hitler regularly bragging about the superiority of German industry, the theory was that an anti-Nazi crewman or passengers planted a bomb on the Hindenburg.  Since no individual or group ever stepped forward to claim responsibility, the theory continues that the saboteur must have perished in the disaster.

At the very least, that’s the theory put forward by a film that I watched earlier today, the 1975 disaster movie, The Hindenburg.

A mix of historical speculation and disaster film melodrama, The Hindenburg stars George C. Scott as Col. Franz Ritter, a veteran of the German air force who is assigned to travel on the Hindenburg and protect it from saboteurs.  Ritter is a Nazi but, the film argues, he’s a reluctant and disillusioned Nazi.  Just a few weeks before the launch of the airship, his teenage son was killed while vandalizing a synagogue.  Ritter is a patriot who no longer recognizes his country and George C. Scott actually does a pretty good job portraying him.  (You do have to wonder why a seasoned veteran of the German air force would have a gruff, slightly mid-Atlantic accent but oh well.  It’s a 70s disaster film.  These things happen.)

Ritter is assigned to work with Martin Vogel (Roy Thinnes), a member of the Gestapo who is working undercover as the Hindenburg’s photographer.  Tt soon becomes obvious that he is as much a fanatic as Ritter is reluctant.  Vogel is a sadist, convinced that every Jewish passenger is secretly a saboteur.  Thinnes is chilling in the role.  What makes him especially frightening is not just his prejudice but his casual assumption that everyone feels the same way that he does.

And yet, as good as Scott and Thinnes are, the rest of the cast is rather disappointing.  The Hindenburg features a large ensemble of actors, all playing characters who are dealing with their own privates dramas while hoping not to burn to death during the final 15 minutes of the film.  Unfortunately, even by the standards of a typical 70s disaster film, the passengers are thinly drawn.  I liked Burgess Meredith and Rene Auberjonois as two con artists but that was mostly because Meredith and Auberjonois are so charming that they’re fun to watch even if they don’t have anything to do.  Anne Bancroft has one or two good scenes as a German baroness and Robert Clary does well as a vaudeville performer who comes under suspicion because of his anti-Nazi leanings.  Otherwise, the passengers are forgettable.  Whether they die in the inferno and manage to make it to the ground, your main reaction will probably be to look at them and say, “Who was that again?”

Anyway, despite all of Ritter and Vogel’s sleuthing, it’s not much of mystery because it’s pretty easy to figure out that the saboteur is a crewman named Boerth (William Atherton).  Having seen Real GeniusDie Hard and the original Ghostbusters, I found it odd to see William Atherton playing a sympathetic character.  Atherton did okay in the role but his attempt at a German accent mostly served to remind me that absolutely no one else in the film was trying to sound German.

Anyway, the main problem with The Hindenburg is that it takes forever for the airship to actually explode.  The film tries to create some suspense over whether Ritter will keep the bomb from exploding but we already know that he’s not going to.  (Let’s be honest.  If you didn’t already know about the Hindenburg disaster, you probably wouldn’t be watching the movie in the first place.)  The film probably would have worked better if it had started with the Hindenburg exploding and then had an investigator working backwards, trying to figure out who the saboteur was.

However, the scenes of the explosion almost make up for everything that came before.  When that bomb goes off, the entire film suddenly switches to black-and-white.  That may sound like a cheap or even sensationalistic trick but it actually works quite well.  It also allows the scenes of passengers and crewmen trying to escape to be seamlessly integrated with actual footage of the Hindenburg bursting into flame and crashing to the ground.  The real-life footage is still shocking, especially if you’re scared of fire.  Watching the real-life inferno, I was again shocked to realize that only 36 people died in the disaster.

In the end, The Hindenburg is flawed but watchable.  George C. Scott was always at his most watchable when playing a character disappointed with humanity and the real-life footage of the Hindenburg disaster is morbidly fascinating.

Oh, the humanity indeed!