New To Blu: Scarecrows

Scarecrows gets the Scream Factory blu-ray treatment this week.

This week, Scream Factory reanimates another lesser-known '80s horror film, a 1988 twist on the zombie formula called Scarecrows. As always, the much-loved studio does a stellar job, but the question is: is this another overlooked gem like they've uncovered for us in the past, or simply a weak genre entry that has been forgotten because it's just... forgettable?

"Damn it! I was gonna pay you back."
A few years ago when Scarecrows had never been released on DVD and only survived as nostalgic memories and a very rare Vestron Video VHS, it had taken on an almost mythic reputation as a great, lost horror film of the 1980s, and a truly unique twist on the zombie movie. Oh, how nostalgia can warp our memories. Belatedly watching the film for the first time, I really wanted it to be something great, and live up to that half-remembered hype. Unfortunately, it doesn't. At its best, it packs some great atmosphere and very nasty gore that livens up what is otherwise a very by-the-number zombie tale; at its worst it is jaw-droppingly stupid and rather tedious. This is the exact type of film that Cabin in the Woods makes fun of, with even more cliches and dumb moments than most movies in that category. Watching it for the first time as a fan of Cabin may be a little unfair to Scarecrows, but honestly, it doesn't need a subsequent spoof to make its failings obvious; its script does that without any help.

While the premise itself sounds fairly unique – soldiers-turned-criminals hiding in a farmhouse surrounded by living killer scarecrows – all it really does is use the soldiers as a more gruff and badass substitute for standard horror movie teenagers, and dress zombies up in scarecrow outfits. The latter at least is a very good decision: the scarecrows look awesomely creepy, and the ways in which they kill their victims are very unique and nasty. These guys could have been the villains of a truly memorable horror flick, but instead all we get is reheated leftovers of Night of the Living Dead with a bit of Evil Dead thrown in for seasoning. Which would be perfectly fine if the movie was written in a way that at least made it feel a little bit new, or if it had a sense of humor about itself; Neil Marshall's directorial debut Dog Soldiers is superficially similar to Scarecrows (except with werewolves), but is an awesome, extremely entertaining movie for exactly those reasons. Alas, Scarecrows' script is the final nail in the coffin.

Even for horror movie characters, these folks are staggeringly dumb. And for an elite commando squad who just had the skills to pull of a heist? It's impossible to believe. They are constantly splitting up and wandering off alone, even after they know there are killers outside. They do absurdly un-stealthy things like play harmonica while trying to sneak past the scarecrows, and they just cannot seem to figure out the obvious supernatural things happening right in front of their faces. And then when they do figure things out, they forget them by the next scene. Not to mention, they speak in really, really bad dialogue.

Consider this exchange:
Soldier 1: “I think this place is possessed by demonic demons!”
Soldier 2: “Your face will be possessed by the butt of my gun if you don't shut up.”
Stellar stuff there; they sound like Homestar Runner and Strong Bad.

The movie does have a couple consistent strong points. The atmosphere is great, thanks to some top-notch art design and strong lighting and camera work. It takes place entirely at night: a moody, moonlit night in the spooky field behind a crumbling farmhouse. It's the perfect place for a horror movie – even if the house bears a striking similarity to those in both The Evil Dead and Cabin in the Woods. The effects and makeup are equally excellent. The scarecrows look very creepy and convincing, and the gore effects definitely pack a punch. This blu-ray, as well as the previous MGM DVD, feature the unrated version of the film, which is four minutes longer than the old R-rated version thanks to the various bloody kill scenes. But alas, strong visuals do not a good film make, and the great atmosphere and effects prove to be too little too late for Scarecrows. Especially since the real scarecrow mayhem doesn't start until way too far into the film's short running time, by which point the stupidity of it all is too much for it to overcome.

"Tough guys smoke cigars."
As always, Scream Factory should be applauded for the love and care they put into their blu-ray of Scarecrows: while MGM's DVD was bare-bones, they loaded up this disc with some very cool special features. There are two different audio commentaries – one from the director and the producer, another from the co-writer, cinematographer, and score composer – and two behind-the-scenes featurettes, about the special effects and the acting. I can't help but think that there are other neglected '80s horror movies that would be far more deserving of this special treatment, but bravo to Scream Factory for going the extra mile even when the film maybe doesn't deserve it.

I love cheesy '80s horror flicks. Give me a spooky cabin in the woods and some creepy monsters and I'm ready to have a great time. So of course I went into Scarecrows fully prepared to really enjoy it, even though I didn't expect a masterpiece. I was ready to be pretty forgiving of the usual flaws that films like this have, as long as it delivered the fun, spooky time that I was hoping for. But the flaws are just too much to be forgiving of, even for someone like me who usually digs movies like this, and the stronger moments are too few. If you really want to see this film in high def, or if you have a nostalgic love for the movie and want to check out the extras, Scream Factory's disc gives you everything you could possibly want. But personally, I would recommend avoiding it, or if you really want to check it out, streaming it before you spend money on the blu-ray. There are a lot of very cool, overlooked genre flicks from this era, but this is definitely not one of them. Leave it hanging in its corn field.

-Christopher S. Jordan