Do you like scary movies? What about SCARY MOVIE? I’m not talking about the original script title for SCREAM, or the parody movie series named after the original script title for SCREAM, but the 1991 movie starring John Hawkes and taking place on Halloween night. It was shot on 16mm in Austin and when the American Genre Film Archive released a restored blu-ray and DVD in 2019 they said it had never been “legitimately distributed” until then. I did find a reference to it playing “limited runs in Europe and Asia,” but anyway, that’s why most of us never heard of it before.
Hawkes is from Minnesota, but as a young man he moved to Austin, where he was in a couple bands (including one with Rodney “Joey from ELM STREET 3 & 4” Eastman) and started appearing in locally filmed movies like FUTURE-KILL (the one with the unrelated H.R. Giger cover), D.O.A., and a thriller called MURDER RAP where he’s the star. He’s also the lead in SCARY MOVIE, playing a fraidy cat nerd named Warren who goes with his more outgoing buddy Brad (Jason R. Waller, Austin Stories) and Brad’s girlfriend Shelley (THE BALLAD OF THE SAD CAFE) to a haunted house attraction.
It’s a really different type of performance than I’ve ever seen from Hawkes, and therefore impressive. He wears a button up shirt tucked into pleated slacks and a catalog of fake half smiles that can’t cover up all the tics that represent his social anxiety. A stretch at the beginning is spent being extremely awkward while waiting in line for the haunted house, trying to act normal when his pals start making out right next to him, frequently looking at his beeping digital watch just to have something to do, flinching whenever there’s a loud noise from the house, horrendously failing to make conversation with and/or not look at the boobs of Shelley’s friend Barbara (Suzanne Aldrich), who they set him up with.
While going to the port-a-potty to take a piss (where he has another awkward encounter with horny people) he overhears some cops talking about an escaped mental patient. We also see the guy escape – he looks like the bass player from some up and coming band of the time.
So yes, it’s a HAUNT or HELL FEST type story of a real killer loose in a fake scary attraction… or IS HE? It plays with the idea that you don’t know what’s real, what’s for show, what’s paranoid delusion. The haunted house has a mascot who’s a grim reaper with weirdly giant teeth and now seems to be killing people for real.
I guess the title is some kind of ‘90s irony thing – when the logo comes up at the beginning there’s a bar code under it, as if this movie is just “SCARY MOVIE” in the same sense that the beer they drink in REPO MAN is just “BEER.” Especially in the beginning it feels more like a quirky (though not very funny) indie comedy than a serious horror movie. And it never gets convincingly creepy or gory. But it does take on a surreal and more serious tone as it gets further in, and has a pretty dark twist to it.
There’s definitely an appeal to the scrappy home made quality of it, especially since it’s set inside a scrappy home made haunted house attraction. I really like the shot at the beginning that seems to be the sun or moon with a tree branch in the foreground and as the camera moves we realize that the tree is real but the moon is part of a phony mural that someone is painting on the side of the house. Honestly some of my favorite stuff was at the beginning when you see the guys getting the haunted house ready and it feels pretty real.
The only name star (at the time) is Butch Patrick, whose character is named Eddie to remind you he played Eddie Munster, in case you’re not Rob Zombie and don’t know The Munsters that well. I’m the type who probly wouldn’t recognize a Munster without prompting, but who did spot Robert Jacks, who played Leatherface in TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION, as one of the guys shown in the background alot. (He’s credited as Rowdy #1.)
The songs in the movie are by Roky Erickson and The Aliens, Paul Leary, Erik Moll, The Calvin Russell Band, Denny Freeman, and two by The Butthole Surfers. One of those songs, “Strangers Die Everyday,” was also in SLACKER, filmed in Austin just a little earlier. Along with the rock ’n roll is a good score that melts into some ambient dissonance that made me wonder if maybe TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE’s Wayne Bell was involved. Nope, it’s a guy named Hank Hehmsoth who did not score any other movies but now teaches composition and jazz piano at Texas State School of Music.
An article about the re-release on the school’s websight says he used an Akai S1000 sampler with a library of orchestral samples and also experimented with stuff like sliding a rubber ball up and down piano strings and using “Tibetan gongs to sound like random wind chimes, and lots of percussion toys.” Yeah, that’s that TEXAS CHAIN SAW shit I liked.
other (released) horror from 1991: POPCORN, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (if you count it), BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR, SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK, THE BONE YARD, BODY PARTS, CHILD’S PLAY 3, FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE, TWO EVIL EYES, THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS
I think it’s great that SCARY MOVIE exists and has been resurrected, but honestly I didn’t love watching it. So I decided to watch another John Hawkes horror movie so I could make this review a twofer. NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW (not to be confused with DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW) is from 1995, after Hawkes had added Alex Winter’s FREAKED (where he wears cow makeup), Steve Kloves’ FLESH AND BONE, Robert Rodriguez’s ROADRACERS, Ralph Bakshi’s COOL AND THE CRAZY and Frank Marshall’s CONGO to his resume. It’s a low budget one, but a much higher low budget than SCARY MOVIE, and it was actually released (straight to video).
This time Hawkes does not play a geek, but a drunken hick dirtbag who starts fights all the time and is never held accountable for his bullshit because his old man is friends with the mayor. His character Danny Thompson is not the main character, but he’s central in that it’s his fault that there even is a night of the scarecrow. After he gets fired from his construction job he gets drunk with his friend, drives a tractor through a cornfield and accidentally cracks open a magic stone used to contain a dangerous warlock. Whoops! It’s right at the base of a scarecrow, so the warlock possesses it and goes on a rampage looking for his book of satanic spells.
The story begins with the mayor (Gary Lockwood, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) making a speech in the town square about the exciting new shopping mall development that is going to march this little farming town into a bold new future. Two of the people in the crowd are new-to-the-town construction foreman Dillon (John Mese, EXCESSIVE FORCE II: FORCE ON FORCE) and newly-returned-to-the-town Claire (Elizabeth Barondes, BLACK DAWN, SECOND IN COMMAND, BAD ASS 2: BAD ASSES), who spot each other from a distance and make very obvious sex looks at each other, then strike up a conversation. As soon as Dillon starts trash talking the mayor we realize Claire is his daughter. But she kinda hates her dad too so she invites Dillon to come over to his house for dinner.
I think these are pretty weak characters, but strong enough performances that I can go along with it. Barondes has the kind of presence required for a good horror heroine, and I like that Mese is more grown up, manly and working class than usual for a horror lead. Normally, especially in that era, they felt the need to cast younger or younger looking.
The post-FRIDAY THE 13TH, pre-SCREAM era of horror has a reputation for pushing conservative values, but here’s an example of the more anti-establishment attitudes many fans had at the time. The whole town is run by this one family. The mayor doesn’t give a fuck about the town’s history of farming if he can get money from a mall. His brother Frank (Stephen Root, V.I. WARSHAWSKI) is the sheriff, who he reminds is only sheriff because he’s his brother. His brother Thaddeus (Bruce Glover, WALKING TALL I, II and III, HARD TIMES, POPCORN, GHOST WORLD) is the town’s reverend, and he’s a judgmental, repressed hypocrite. And we later learn that the whole town was built on a shameful act: the church sold out to a warlock (John Lazar, “Z-Man” from BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, also in DEATHSTALKER II and SCORPION) who could helped their crops with satanic magic, but then he started having huge orgies with all their wives so they literally crucified him and buried him under that magic seal.
So now the warlock is back as the Scarecrow (Howard Swain, CHERRY 2000, MIRACLE MILE), a pretty cool horror creation. He has one button eye (the other was plucked off by a crow, who quickly regretted it) and after he unstitches his mouth we see gnarly teeth inside that burlap head. His face, lankiness and exaggerated gestures make him look a little more cartoony than your average slasher. A little like the scarecrow in RETURN TO OZ. I like that. But the best is at the end when he has one arm chopped off and has been set on fire and looks much more horrific.
His first kill is Claire’s harmless drunk uncle George (Dirk Blocker, POLTERGEIST, PINK CADILLAC), who he pins to a barn wall with a bident (two-pronged pitchfork) and then mulches with a thresher. Reportedly the original script had the scarecrow doing corny one-liners, which I kinda expected, in the JACK FROST tradition. But I’m glad instead they went with weird grunts and only a small amount of labored speech.
Most of his kills are more magical. He can blow people over with wind and often infects people with roots that tear out of their mouths, breasts, whatever. In one scene his hand gets chopped off so he blows on his stump made of straw, and pieces of it stick into a face like porcupine quills. (I’m not sure why that’s fatal, but again, I’ll go with it.)
The scarecrow’s most “deserving” victim is Thaddeus, who is so uptight he scolds his daughter Stephanie (Cristi Harris, NIGHT OF THE DEMONS 2) for receiving a knock off Victoria’s Secret catalog (called “Our Secret”) in the mail. Of course his anger is really about himself, because when he’s alone he looks at the models in their underwear, cries and sucks on his inhaler in repressed horny terror. Then he hears women seductively calling his name and moaning. He follows them into the church and is startled by a squealing pig, then by the scarecrow.
The least deserving victim is Stephanie. Most of the characters who get killed seem like they’re facing repercussions for various sins, and if that’s the case with her her sin is just having sex with Danny. I mean, poor choice of boyfriend, but she’s young. The scarecrow’s method is also extra disgusting/degrading, because he forces some weird bone thing protruding from his hand into her mouth, an unmistakably rapey assault.
Hawkes’ character Danny, unfortunately, is killed off screen. One of those “Oh no I’m about to die!” (cut to black) deaths. He shoulda been the one to get violated, I think.
If we want this to be a truthful poetic portrayal of the real world we might not like that one of the only good guys in the town is the sheriff. On the other hand, there’s a very true to life scene where Claire and Dillon are escaping from the scarecrow and run into a bunch of other cops, who instead of helping pull guns on them and refuse to listen to a single word of the life or death information they try to impart to them. That part I believe.
I think I liked the early parts of the movie better than the last parts, as I realized the themes set up in the beginning were somewhat forgotten, the scarecrow had turned out to be pretty one note, and the main characters hadn’t really grown on me. But as far as just the business at hand of trying to kill the scarecrow (by finding and destroying the warlock’s bones) it’s pretty well done, with a little bit of a THE TERMINATOR influence, I think. And the dated digital effects are kept to a minimum. It’s not by any means a great horror movie but I found it pretty satisfying as a solid one of this type that I hadn’t seen before.
The script is by Reed Steiner (Nash Bridges, S.W.A.T.: FIREFIGHT) and Dan Mazur (VIRTUAL NIGHTMARE, uncredited rewriter of John Carpenter’s VAMPIRES if IMDb is to be believed) and the director is Jeff Burr, who I only knew from LEATHERFACE: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III. For some reason I assumed this must’ve been the movie that got him the job of doing a bunch of sequels, but actually it came later. He had already done FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM, STEPFATHER II, PUMPKINHEAD II and PUPPET MASTER 4 and 5, plus a non-horror movie called EDDIE PRESLEY starring Duane Whitaker as an Elvis impersonator. (Whitaker also plays a cop in this one.) Since NIGHT OF THE SCARECOW Burr’s filmography has been more varied, ranging from episodes of BeetleBorgs to some kids’ werewolf movies to a Gary Daniels sci-fi movie called SPOILER. His most recent film is PUPPET MASTER: BLITZKRIEG MASSACRE (which is apparently a clip show).
Unlike most ‘90s DTV, NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW has gotten a nice restored blu-ray from Olive Films. It even has a director commentary track (though I didn’t have time to listen to it). Sadly I guess it’s already out of print and pricey to buy used. But this sort of release is becoming more common with the MVD Rewind Collection and stuff like that, and I’m excited to catch up on more things like this.
other horror from 1995: IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, THE MANGLER, CANDYMAN: FAREWELL TO THE FLESH, TALES FROM THE HOOD, LEPRECHAUN 3, SPECIES, LORD OF ILLUSIONS, HALLOWEEN: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS