By the end of the ’80s, the horror genre was at sliding down the side of a peak of popularity: there were a lot of sequels, a lot Nightmare On Elm Street imitations, the dying gasps of the slasher flick and a lot of direct-to-video product that was of erratic quality. However, any time in a genre cycle can produce good films and they can come from anywhere. Scarecrows is a good example of a dark-horse surprise emerging from horror’s late ’80s doldrums. Most people got acquainted with this one via VHS or cable and discovered that it is quirky, inspired and genuinely spooky.
Scarecrows begins on a tense note, with a pilot (David Campbell) and his daughter (Victoria Christian) flying a plane that has been hijacked by a gang of rogue soldiers who just pulled off a heist. Unfortunately, the thieves have a double-crosser (B.J. Turner) in their ranks and he pulls off a bit of sabotage that allows him to parachute onto a farm with the money. He discovers that the place is guarded by scarecrows that are more than just bundles of straw – and when the rest of the crew lands to get him, they find themselves in a place where the supernatural is rewriting the rules of survival and escape.
The beauty of Scarecrows is the way it keeps finding novel wrinkles in its simple premise. The plotting and characterizations are elemental in their simplicity but the story stays fresh thanks to an array of well-timed reveals in how the supernatural menace works. Rather than relying on the titular creatures just picking off the cast, the story weaves in unique elements like the malevolent force at this farm being able to mislead the characters with auditory parlor tricks and take over their bodies. There’s even a fun, Twilight Zone-esque bit late in the film that suggests a surreal explanation for how the rogue soldiers ended up in this tight spot.
Scarecrows is also ambitious in how it handles the horror. It goes for an ambiguous approach, never explaining the source of the supernatural activity, and balances that with a ruthlessness in how the dark forces deal with the soldiers. The unique monsters are also boast an excellent, subtly creepy makeup design from Norman Cabrera. The film doles out the shocks sparingly but has a few stunningly gruesome moments, particularly in a scene where the evil animates a murdered villains and sends him after his fellow soldiers.
Director William Wesley keeps his pacing taut and puts a focus on atmosphere, aided nicely by a spare, creepy chamber music-style score from Terry Plumeri and gorgeous night photography by future Hollywood D.P. Peter Deming. As for the cast, there’s a limited amount they can do with their starkly-drawn characterizations but Michael David Simms is a standout with an intense performance as the smartest of the group, who progressively loses his cool as the farm’s evil finds new ways to confound him. Kristina Sanborn also does well as the lone female member of the group (in a refreshing touch, she’s as tough and capable as the other soldiers and her gender is never an issue).
In short, Scarecrows is a nice little surprise for fans of gritty, low-budget horror. Any rough edges it might have are made up for by a combination of style, inventiveness and a genre-appropriate heartlessness. It’s a bleak little gem that ’80s horror fans should seek out.