Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Scarecrows (1988)

William Wesley’s Scarecrows opens in media res.  Curry (Michael Simms) and his band of commandos have just robbed a military base of three-point-five million dollars.  They have also taken hostage Al (David Campbell) and his daughter Kellie (Victoria Christian), and, of course, they’re dog Dax (Dax Vernon), and they are using the family as getaway airplane pilots (let’s never mind how the Unites States military is completely unable to track the aircraft; it doesn’t matter).  After Bert (B.J. Turner) robs his fellow robbers of their loot and parachutes out of the plane, the gang give chase.  But the secluded, rural area they land in is watched over by something that doesn’t take too kindly to their intrusion (okay, it’s the titular scarecrows).

I’ve thought about robbing a bank.  I’m positive just about everyone on Earth has at some point or another.  I’m sure it’s not easy, but it also has the allure of being better than real work (or at least the kind of work where you have to punch a clock for eight or more hours a day and answer to The Man).  The thing that holds most folks back from doing it is the danger (coincidentally, also the reason it’s attractive to some).  It’s a risky business once you point a gun at someone and demand all the money in their vault.  Will they acquiesce, or will they resist and attack (doubtful, but there’s always that wild card)?  Then there’s the whole angle of the money being traceable, the ability to actually make good your escape, the resources needed to hideout and possibly even have to assume a new identity (on paper, if nothing else).  A person, therefore, has to weigh the risks versus the rewards, because even if you get clear with the money, there will always be stumbling blocks, big and small, any of which can wind up with you either spending time in the pokey or spending time in a grave (but only one of these has the possibility of your eventual release, except in horror films like Scarecrows).  And that’s why, for me, I’d rather just work some overtime to make ends meet.

Scarecrows are looked upon as being several things, symbolically speaking.  They are primarily protectors in most of the public consciousness.  They guard crops from scavengers, but they also guard (or used to guard) villages from pillagers, because they give the illusion of a live person standing guard.  Their motionlessness has an offputting quality when viewed from a distance, and their slack, faceless heads can be just as disquieting for what a viewer projects onto them.  Scarecrows are also regarded, according to Carl Jung, as belonging to The Shadow aspect of the human psyche.  This is a part of our personality that lies in the unconscious, and what it reflects, in part, is the darkness within us (I’m really, really simplifying here).  Both of these facets are at play in this film.

On the one hand, the scarecrows in the film are guardians of the Fowler land (I don’t recall the family actually being named in the film, but they are listed as such in the credits).  Their house, their ancient Ford F100, the ground it’s all built on, is sacred to them.  There are three crosses, supposedly indicating where the three Fowler men are buried, and at least one scarecrow stands vigil at this site (we’re never given a clear geography of where all of the scarecrows are, whether they circumscribe the property or are interspersed throughout it, et cetera).  When the bank robbers land on the premises, they violate the sanctity of the Fowlers’ property (the fact that the family is also buried there only magnifies this violation).  Nevertheless, unlike actual scarecrows, the ones in this movie aren’t there only as visual deterrents.  They are punishment for wrongdoing, and the commandos have transgressed fourfold.  First, they stole what didn’t belong to them.  Second, they killed military personnel during commission of their crime.  Third, they kidnapped innocent people to aid in their escape (probably the least serious of their offenses).  Fourth, they trespassed where they didn’t belong.  All of these things are punishable by death in the film, but the last of them is the most egregious from the perspective of the antagonists.  The reason I say this is because even Al and Kellie are candidates for victimhood, though they committed no crimes in the eyes of the law.  The Fowlers are just protecting what’s theirs, but they also serve tangentially as retribution for injustices outside the scope of their land.

On the other hand, the scarecrows are totems of the bad in humanity.  There is some reference to the Fowlers possibly being into Satanism or some other occult hoodoo, and the scarecrows are avatars of this evil, unable to die, cursed to inhabit their estate for eternity.  Similar to their role as executioners for the guilty, they are also reflections of the Shadow within the human characters.  After all, the commandos are not especially nice people, and their inner ugliness is essentially projected outward, manifesting as the scarecrows which hack up their victims and transform them into scarecrows as well.  The scarecrows make concrete this unconscious aspect of the characters’ psyches.

I remember seeing this film way back when it first hit VHS, and at the time, I really liked it.  Viewing it today, through more critical eyes, I can see its flaws much more clearly.  The acting is a little sketchy (with Simms basically imitating Joe Pilato from Day of the Dead) but not as horrendous as it could be.  The characters themselves are individuated enough to be distinct, though they’re really not too terribly interesting (and I was surprised that of all of them, Kellie, the one who should be the most sympathetic, is the one who is the most one-dimensional).  But my biggest problem with the film is its first half (actually closer to first two-thirds).  It has a decent setup that draws you in, but once everyone hits the ground, the film becomes a series of scenes of the cast wandering around in the woods talking and not saying anything of any consequence whatsoever or propelling the minimal plot forward.  These scenes are punctuated (I suppose you could say bookmarked, but they really feel more arbitrary than that) with many (many, many) closeup shots of the scarecrows just hanging out.  These moments are meant to build dread and to mount anticipation for the ineluctable jump scares/kill scenes, but they honestly just become tiresome after so much screen time is wasted on them.  That said, the final half hour or more of the film does begin to pick up, and the filmmakers finally do start to give us some intriguing scenarios and interactions.  If only they had worked harder to do the same for the rest of the picture leading up to this point.  Scarecrows is still a mildly entertaining horror film, but its strengths also serve to heavily underscore its weaknesses.

MVT:  The makeup effects in this are impressive, and the scarecrows each have a look that is visually striking.  The gore also works quite well, and there are some truly gruesome moments that help keep things a bit lively.

Make or Break:  The opening sequence on the plane nicely sets up what’s going on and what’s coming up, even with some silly moments like a grenade that would have exploded long before anyone is able to get to it and a character casually playing his harmonica while smoke fills the plane’s interior (as you do).

Score:  6.25/10

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