Dark Night of the Scarecrow

As The Simpsons put it, “there’s no justice like angry mob justice,” and vigilantism is the thrust of Dark Night of the Scarecrow, which along with Duel, is easily one of the best made-for-TV horror flicks ever. That might seem like faint praise — like being the brightest bulb at a psychics’ conventions — but give credit where it’s due. After all, there was a time these kinds of films were all the rage.

Dark Night of the Scarecrow is set in a rural Ventura County, California with local yokels casting a suspicious eye on Bubba, the town simpleton. When a young girl is mauled by a dog, townies use it as an excuse to track down the supposed culprit. They hop in a pickup truck, and act as judge, jury and executioner, pumping lead into the poor fellow who’s hiding in a cornfield, disguised as a scarecrow.

The foursome stages the crime scene for self-defence, placing a pitchfork in the cold, dead hands of the deceased. And apparently, this town isn’t much for forensics or due diligence, and the kangaroo court exonerates the vigilantes.

The grieving mother, warns the mob, “You may think that you’re getting off free, but there’s other justice in this world, besides the law!”

The plot is orchestrated by a devious mailman, a la Seinfeld’s Newman, played with scenery-gnawing glee by Charles Durning (The Sting/Dog Day Afternoon) who soon finds himself compelled to listen to increasingly paranoid tales spun by his collaborators about the sudden and creepy appearance of a scarecrow in their fields.

When one member of their ranks stumbles into a piece of farm equipment, killing him, the surviving parties begin to wonder if they’re being haunted from beyond the grave, by a vengeful scarecrow seeking justice for Bubba.

This might sound, well, kinda corny and while Dark Night of the Scarecrow veers uncomfortably into hicksploitation territory at times, there’s absolutely no denying the sinister, chromatic score, nor the serious chiaroscuro atmosphere. The darks are very dark and very foreboding, as this was back when horror film directors were unafraid to let audiences use their imagination to fill in the details, instead of lighting night scenes like they red carpet galas.

And there’s a terrific, claustrophobic death involving one of the characters being suffocated in a grain silo.

***1/2 (out of 5)

P2

The best horrors exploit limited space, in both senses of the term in Alien, but also coeds confined to their sorority house in Black Christmas, spelunkers in The Descent or the protagonist in P2, stuck in an underground parking garage on Christmas Eve.

Directed by Franck Khalfoun — the Frenchman responsible for moving the singular slasher Maniac to the other coast in one of the dozen plus or so remakes that actually honour the spirit of the original — P2 exploits twin fears: being abandoned and stuck in a subterranean hell.

Rachel Nichols plays Angela, who finds herself toiling in her midtown Manhattan office tower and burning the candle at both ends. When she has car trouble, the building security guard, Thomas, doubles as a Good Samaritan with jumper cables. Unfortunately, he has ulterior motives conjuring up the Jimmy Carr zinger, “does this rag smell like chloroform to you?”

When Angela comes to she’s dressed not exactly in her Sunday best, complete with lipstick smear and low cut top, and Thomas has dinner plans for her. No, not that kind. He’s got a microwavable Christmas repast and a captive, if not receptive, audience.

And it turns out he has plans beyond a festive dinner, and that involve putting Angela in an uncomfortable bind and terrible moral predicament, which we won’t spoil.

P2 is simple, straightforward, bare bones horror.

There’s no stupid exposition, no extraneous characters, people act as they should when put in mortal danger, and Khalfoun makes the utmost of an inherently creepy locale, one that frequently has women clutching their keys for a pre-emptive strike.

He also amps up the claustrophobia with a tense elevator scene, dialing up the tension to penthouse levels. Plus, there’s a nice bit of surveillance/privacy invasion horror to exploit yet another fear.

P2 is produced and co-written by Alexandre Aja, who knows a thing or two about horror himself, the mastermind behind the excellent Haute Tension and better than it should be, animal run amok flick, Crawl (not to mention, speaking of quality remakes, his inspired take on The Hills Have Eyes).

And the Parisian collab of P2 reveals quality.

**** (out of 5)