The Film: 4/5
You just can't help but sense that Shout! Factory is running low on horror cult classics to re-release on Blu-ray through their Scream Factory imprint when they start giving a digital spit-n-polish to movies even I'm not familiar with. Case in point, William Wesley's Scarecrows, a creepy and cool mash-up of supernatural terror, slasher gore, and hard-boiled action that was ignored in theaters but lived to build a decent fan base through video and cable.
MGM first issued Scarecrows on DVD in September 2007 with a spiffy new anamorphic widescreen transfer and a 2.0 Dolby Surround audio track but nothing in the way of extras. Naturally, Scream Factory's Blu-ray ups the ante on every front, making this the definitive home video edition for fans of this vastly overlooked gem of a fright flick.
A team of ex-military mercenaries lead by Curry (Michael Simms) has pulled off a $3.5 million heist and is bound for Mexico in a stolen plane when team member Bert (B.J. Turner) decides to eliminate his partners with a grenade and parachute to freedom with the money. He makes it to the ground with his life and their ill-gotten king's ransom, but the others luckily survive the attack and are now hellbent on finding Bert, collecting the money, and making their treacherous compatriot regret his actions in a very violent manner. Bert lands in a labyrinthine cornfield located near an isolated farmhouse with Curry and fellow thieves Corbin (Ted Vernon), Jack (Richard Vidan), and Roxanne (Kristina Sanborn) in hot pursuit. They also have two hostages, their pilot Al (David Campbell) and his daughter Kellie (Victoria Christian). Once everyone converges on the cornfield, they discover that it is guarded by several seemingly inanimate scarecrows. But within these burlap sacks of straw lurk a malevolent evil that comes to life and starts picking the thieves off one by one in gory fashion. By the time the money is found, they won't be alive to enjoy it.
Horror cinema in the 1980's didn't really start to get interesting until after the slasher genre began its agonizing descent into box office obscurity. By then the major studios were more focused on dominating the summer movie season and flooding the fall with prestigious awards bait. As always, it was left up to the indie distributors and filmmakers to bring original, entertaining horror films to the masses. The growing popularity of home video sales and rentals helped fright flicks that couldn't afford to make much of a stand on the big screen find the audiences they deserved. Scarecrows, a taut and terrifying yarn, is obviously one of those fear-fueled features that have long been unjustly ignored.
The story of bloodthirsty monsters running amuck is nothing new, but the decision by director Wesley and co-writer Richard Jefferies (The Vagrant) to serve up as potential victims a group of heavily-armed and crafty criminals is an interesting and original touch that easily sets their movie apart from other supernatural slasher flicks. It also allows for the story to develop in unpredictable ways that keep the surprises coming and rewards viewer attention. The lack of sympathetic characters (outside of Christian's youthful heroine who would seem more at home in a mid-80's NBC family sitcom) doesn't make Scarecrows any less of an enjoyable watch. Curry and his fellow thieves aren't monsters, but they are ready and willing to kill anyone who gets in the way of their carefully crafted plans.
The actors playing our armed and angry antiheroes play off each other well and have an easygoing group camaraderie that doesn't always come across as authentic, but it works just fine for the story. The characters are limited to merely the basic traits: Curry is the leader, Jack loves his harmonica, Corbin is bald and chomps cigars like Nick Fury, and Roxanne is....the woman of the group. We're not talking Samuel Beckett here, folks, but this is a B-movie after all so shallow characterization is expected. It might have made the movie better if we had a bit more insight into their backgrounds and motivations. The performances are also just right for the material, with Simms (who looks and sounds more than a little like Joe Pilato) and Vernon representing the best of the male side of the cast, while Sanborn does her share of kicking ass and commanding respect as Roxanne.
Wesley pared Scarecrows down to a lean 83-minute running time and he doesn't permit a wasted second to ruin the film's forward momentum; every scene exists to keep the narrative in motion, offering new information when necessary and keeping the titular monsters created by the special effects crew skippered by Norman Cabrera (This is the End) in the shadows for most of the first and second acts. Those scarecrows are without a doubt the scariest part of the movie, and Wesley takes great care to keep the beasts from being overexposed or turned into figures of mockery. The gore effects are juicy enough to earn the movie its R rating and feature a grisly decapitation, fingers bitten off, and corpses hollowed out and turned into human scarecrows just for starters. Cinematographer Peter Deming, who knows a little something about effectively photographing horror judging by his accomplishments on Evil Dead II and The Cabin in the Woods, creates a frightening mood and turns a simple cornfield into an open air house of horrors. The original score composed by Terry Plumeri (Death Wish V) uses a heavy combination of brass, piano, and string to create the ideal orchestral accompaniment to this scary little flick.
Scream Factory's 1080p high-definition transfer of Scarecrows manages to improve upon MGM's excellent 2007 DVD presentation with sharper visual detail, a finely balanced color palette that favors faded browns and lush greens, and a noticeable lack of digital noise reduction and black crush. The occasional print damage remains intact, but given the quality of the only available elements and the film's low-budget origins this is to be expected. Plus, these flaws are so minor that they never impact the overall quality of the transfer. As with the earlier DVD release, the presentation is framed in the film's original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. For sound options, we have our choice of two English DTS-HD Master Audio tracks: the 5.1 track offers a cleaner and spacious sound mix that never sounds distorted nor requires manual volume adjustment, but the 2.0 track also works well for those without a home theater system because it replicates the original Ultra Stereo mix from Scarecrows' theatrical exhibition with balance and clarity. English subtitles have also been included.
The 2007 DVD was a bare-bones affair in the extras department, so Scream didn't have to do much to top it. Fortunately they have given Scarecrows a fine selection of supplements that prove quality matters more than quantity. First up are a pair of informative audio commentaries: the first features director Wesley and producer Cami Winkoff, and is moderated by Rob Galluzzo of Icons of Fright, while the second has Red Shirt Pictures' Michael Felsher interviewing co-writer Jefferies, director of photography Deming, and composer Plumeri. The former track is the only one that is scene-specific. Felsher's commentary is a Criterion-style affair composed of interviews conducted separately and edited together. Because of this, the second track rarely touches on what is happening in the film as the commentary is in progress, but the two tracks combined offer an engaging and heartfelt overview of the project's development, production, initial release, and eventual reception as a cult film.
Next we have two interview featurettes produced exclusively for this Blu-ray by Red Shirt Pictures. "The Last Straw" (16 minutes) sits down with special effects creator Cabrera for a detailed discussion at how he became involved in the production of Scarecrows and how the titular monsters and the film's restrained gore gags came to be. Top-billed actor Vernon is the focus of "Cornfield Commando" (9 minutes), and he spends his time talking about his career as an actor and his performance as Corbin in the movie. The package is rounded off with an animated storyboard gallery (4 minutes), a gallery of behind-the-scenes photos, and the original theatrical trailer (2 minutes). Scream has also outfitted this disc with reversible cover art that features creepy images of the demonic straw men on both sides.
Scarecrows is a bloody blast of atmospheric chills and thrills that makes effective use of a modest budget and locations and compensates for a lack of polish with cool special effects and wire-tense pacing. Today it seems out of place as a horror film of the 1980's due to its main characters being ammunition-hoarding mercs rather than dumb, horny teenagers. Scream Factory's Blu-ray is well worth the money for horror fans looking for an obscure movie that doesn't desire to be anything but fast and fun entertainment.