The Scarecrow (1982)

Sex :
Violence :
Director Sam Pillsbury
Writers Michael Heath, Sam Pillsbury, Ronald Hugh Morrieson (novel)
Starring Jono Smith, Tracy Mann, Daniel McLaren, John Carradine
Genre Pyscho
Tagline The same night our fowls were stolen Daphne Moran had her throat cut
15 second cap A small rural New Zealand town is about to face death, and a poultry rustling epidemic


“It all started when me and my friend Les went into the poultry business” - Ned

Ned Poindexter is growing up in rural Klynham, New Zealand, during the 1950s. While his family may be living hand to mouth in a ramshackled house Ned has big plans. Along with his best mate Les he's planning on entering the poultry game, the aim being to make a fortune selling eggs. Unfortunately for Ned a dark cloud is entering his summer as his chooks are stolen and an Usherette named Daphne Moran has her throat cut. Ned puts the chicken issue down to the Lynch gang, the biggest danger on the streets of Klynham, and vows to strike back against their empire.

Complicating Ned's life is Prue, his sister, who is hitting womanhood in a pretty ripe fashion. Ned and Les steal some hens from the Lynch's property, and immediately face some rather big complications. His uncle, the moocher Athol, who lives with Ned's family, is dragged in for questioning about the stolen Lynch poultry. Which is kind of ironic considering Uncle Athol stole Ned's livestock in the first place. An out of town trickster named Salter arrives on the scene. The Lynch gang is a clear and present danger. And murder most foul, no pun intended, is seeing a rising body count in the formerly peaceful Klynham. Can Ned get to the bottom of things as an evil closes in on Prue, or will it be a summer of dark discontent?

The Scarecrow is ironically held up to be New Zealand's first attempt at a horror movie, the irony of course being that Director Sam Pillsbury didn't set out to make a dark genre movie. While for sure Pillsbury is hitting small town drama, coming of age, and whatever other genre you want to pull from The Scarecrow's teeth, it still remains as something of a Gothic masterpiece. Pillsbury maybe trying to achieve other things the overriding presence is a dark one, you simply can't get away from it. It could of course be down to the “cinema of unease” as Sam Neill has called New Zealand cinema, Kiwi films naturally skewing toward the dark end of town according to Neill.

Pillsbury starts his movie with one of the weirder montages you could ever hope to run across. While some barely seen chick is falling prey to a hunter in the dark, we also get quick flashes of chickens having their necks wrung. The Director will keep the comparison happening right through The Scarecrow's running time. Our Narrator Ned, we get voice overs at fairly regular intervals to ensure we get what's going down – surprisingly this doesn't irritate, is consumed with the problems he and business partner Les have with keeping their poultry investment running while a gradually growing body count would indicate that things are getting a whole lot more complex than he can comprehend. It's a dark start to a movie that keeps the gothic overtones rolling and the ominous feeling to the forefront.

The Director, here presenting his first feature, has a number of differences happening in The Scarecrow to what we might normally expect from a dark genre flick. Once again highlighting that Downunder cinema has it's own voice and unique approach to things. Modern Directors that forget that do so at their own peril, looking at you Sean Byrne.

Both our narrator, Ned, and the antagonist, Salter, are for the most part peripheral characters to the main event. While Salter is clearly building on his body count, it's all off screen, and Ned is being remorselessly dragged into the blood like a sheep into a bog, they are mainly seen peering from behind curtains, from out of the safety of door frames, and looming out of the dark and into frame. It's almost like the murders aren't something we talk about or want to bring out into the full light of day, which is pretty much in line with the main theme of the movie. Ned's brother Herbert, who is hardly sighted during the course of the movie, does the one major task in his otherwise useless life that can not be discussed according to Ned. Small towns keep their secrets close to their chests, Pillsbury nails this aspect and it underlines the narrative of The Scarecrow to devastating effect.

I really dug Pillsbury's approach to Salter, here played by John Carradine in the role of his life. The infamous actor was 76 when The Scarecrow was filmed and was suffering the effects of chronic alcoholism. Indeed he would die six years after this movie was completed. Pillsbury uses Carradine's gaunt and haunted features to excellent effect throughout the movie in a similar fashion to Brian Gibson's use of the terminally ill with cancer Julian Beck's (Kane) look in Poltergeist II (1986). During a particular eerie scene where Salter mesmerises Prue with a large knife or when Salter shows off his magic the look is particular effective. However Pillsbury goes beyond the simple look and imbibes Salter with an almost Michael Myers' mythical feel throughout, Salter is larger than life and looms almost Marsten House like over the small community he victimises.

For a movie where the murders are all happening off screen, the first prologue piece is the closest we come to Salter's handy work being on screen, there is still a threatening feel to each frame. At any moment we expect Pillsbury to go Friday the 13th on us, but the Director showing remarkable constraint, simply keeps the tension high without having to resort to blood drenched developments.

Of course there are some issues with the movie that while not distracting us from full enjoyment of The Scarecrow still weigh on our viewing experience.

A number of scenes suffer from clear staging. This isn't to say that the acting or anything else is stilted, simply that Pillsbury shows more of a stage Director's approach to things then a cinematic awareness that events should flow naturally. At no stage during the movie did I ever believe that anyone else apart from Salter was the antagonist, though arguable Pillsbury didn't set out to throw any red herrings into the broth. And I have to say the central message is diluted by way too many sub plots, the big house burning down for example following Prue's experiences as a domestic servant to one of the more eccentric local families. The Scarecrow would have worked much better with a simpler narrative structure that involved Ned and Les's chook issues and of course the Salter reign of terror, which surprisingly is less than a reign and more background colour for the first two blocks of the movie. Ned is more concerned with chooks and the Lynch gang, and less concerned with Salter who is slowly closing in on Ned's family.

One thing I learned from this movie is that box car races would rather win a scholarship than a trip to Australia as a price. Fair enough as well really.

Overall I had an excellent time with the movie and was surprised how quickly the tension was raised as The Scarecrow fooled the audience into thinking they might just be watching a small town coming of age flick. While there are problems sprinkled throughout, Director Pillsbury nails his movie with the help of the four excellent leads. Well worth a watch for those who don't need blood and guts in their movie fare, and who like an atmospheric laced journey to the dark genre. Still haven't worked out what “scarecrow” means in relationship to the narrative.

As ever our good friends at NZ Videos have the movie fully covered. If after further information about this or any other Kiwi movie than check the site out. It's become a standard port of call for ScaryMinds to ensure we have our facts right on New Zealand cinema.

Unable to work out how to embed this properly, but the trailer can be found at the New Zealand Film Archive.

ScaryMinds Rates this movie as ...

  Very solid small town Gothic involving chooks and murder