We were fast approaching the crossroads in my life, and they lay dead ahead.
No literal scarecrow runs amuck in Sam Pillsbury’s feature debut The Scarecrow/Klynham Summer (1982), at least not a gangly sticks and straw imitation of a person we might expect to find. Pillsbury’s adaptation of Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s off-kilter coming-of-age novel conjures a different permutation of a scarecrow in the form of a vagabond newcomer to the small town of Klynham, a rail-thin, raggedy character who instills discomfort in those who encounter him. He’s called Hubert Salter (John Carradine), a traveling magician concealing murderous urges, whose presence rattles a quotidian community. Morrieson describes Salter’s arrival in Klynham:
“When the truck rolled off on its way to the distant hills, it left a tall, gaunt man standing motionless beside the dusty road; for all the world, in the rays of the declining sun, like a scarecrow, strayed from the cloud-shadowed field. The shadow he cast heightened the impression of a scarecrow for, under his arm, he carried a cardboard box and this gave great width, in silhouette, to the shoulders of his flapping suit coat, as if his arms were spread.”
The summer of Salter’s advent marks profound changes in the life of Ned Poindexter (Jonathan Smith), an adolescent in 1950’s New Zealand. We’re acquainted with Klynham from his point-of-view, observing the odd collection of characters who inhabit his insular world. He and his pal Les (Daniel McLaren) navigate their rural village hatching money-making schemes while eluding bullies and confronting budding sexual fascination for the girls in town. Ned’s sixteen-year-old sister Prudence (Tracy Mann) is blossoming into a desirable young woman whose many suitors seek to possess her, but are thwarted by her self-assured demeanor and fierce independence. For the first time, Ned notices changes in Pru’s body and her sexual power over men, complicating his own confused emotions. Pillsbury dismisses any misconception concerning Ned’s and Pru’s unique relationship amidst their mutual developments. He says, “There was never any intention on my part to imply that Ned had sexual feelings toward his sister. He was just aware that she was sexy, as an observer, and he was becoming sexually aware himself.”
Remarking on the lure of adapting Morrieson’s novel, Pillsbury says, “I grew up in my childhood in the US a fan of Huckleberry Finn, and The Scarecrow seemed to me the quintessential (New Zealand) novel in the same sort of genre — the story of a child negotiating a confusing and corrupt world, written with acute observations of the people and the culture he negotiated through.” Identifying primarily with Ned, Pillsbury says, “My whole thing was that he was, as a child with wisdom, the only person in a pretty corrupt town who saw clearly the truth of the situation. For me, it was a metaphor for living in today’s society.”
Pillsbury dispels any notion of the scarecrow as a custodial symbol; this personification lurks about in the shadows, preying upon Klynham’s most vulnerable members. Through tragic events, Klynham’s puritanical casing is stripped away to reveal inhabitants prone to temptation, committing petty crimes and seeking solace in copious alcohol consumption. These corrupt adults offer scant protection or guidance to the youth who are left to their own devices in an environment unrestricted by civility. Klynham’s teenage women are especially threatened by lecherous, boozing adults and ruthlessly harassed by a teen gang captained by dastardly Victor Lynch (Greg Naughton). The aggressive elements of Klynham extend to Pru’s deceitful employers, as well as the Poindexter patriarch (Desmond Kelly) and Uncle Athol (Bruce Allpress), who’ve invited older brother Herbert (Stephen Taylor) to share in their desultory lifestyle drinking their days away.
Salter alters the fabric of Klynham in significant ways, provoking change within the Poindexter family in particular. The recent rape and murder of Daphne Moran, a city girl Prudence’s age, jostles the community, especially the youth who feel connected to the victim. The murder, discussed via sensational news headlines and rumors, feels like an adventure to Ned and Les, who relish the break from their humdrum existence. Les naively ruminates, “If we could only see a lady in the nude with her throat cut, floating on a pond, just like those jokers in the city did.”
Pillsbury seizes the opportunity to comment on a pronounced lack of reverence for bodily sanctity in Klynham. Throughout the film, the characters’ interactions involve blatant physical violations, often of a sexual nature. Pru and her friend Angela (Denise O’Connell) endure constant harassment, while Ned suffers abuse at the hands of Lynch’s cronies. These transgressions – groping hands, roaming eyes, and violent threats – are an accepted part of normal daily life despite Ned’s and Pru’s resistance. Salter’s dark nature amplifies the casual violence and sexual abuse already woven through the fabric of Klynham. The utter disregard for boundaries is exemplified by Salter’s comments to his new companions at the local pub, particularly his conversations with Dabney (Jonathan Hardy) the local undertaker whom Salter compliments on his “lucrative profession.” Salter frequently refers to flesh as providing nourishment to the earth, and cryptically underscores this sentiment proclaiming, “all flesh is as grass, sir.” The viewer has already witnessed Salter earlier unmask himself in a scene showing a church group’s demonstration denouncing the local pub as a “bastion of evil.” The fiendish Salter, thirsty for booze, murmurs to himself, “Indeed, and I am death.”
When Salter is invited into the Poindexter home, he dazzles them with magic, performing sleight-of-hand tricks that divert their attention from his malevolent nature. He mesmerizes Pru with his sword-swallower’s dagger, running the blade across her body. Once Ned witnesses Salter’s virulent attraction to Pru, he figures the newcomer connected to the recent murders plaguing the area. Walking home alone one night, Pru receives a fright – an ominous voice calling her name in the dead of night from an abandoned shed shortly after the disappearances of several townsfolk. Once Pru is targeted, the adventure loses it’s luster, and Pru’s normally steely confidence diminishes. Pillsbury uses these story elements to indicate demarcation, where child-like wonder fades as children become aware of their own mortality. Ned’s worldview changes substantially, and he has difficulty reconciling his inability to protect Pru, nor himself, from the dangers closing in.
Pillsbury began his career in documentary film and won multiple awards for Birth with R.D. Laing (1978), a critical look at how Western medical systems handle childbirth. After achieving acclaim for The Scarecrow at Cannes Film Festival, his career continued with work spanning erotic thrillers like made-for-television Zandalee (1991) and independently-lensed Morgan’s Ferry (2001), to mainstream family fare like Free Willy 3: The Rescue (1997) and Where the Red Fern Grows (2003). Landing the prolific Carradine to portray the titular scarecrow was an unexpected victory for Pillsbury whose original plans changed when Carradine was brought aboard by producers. Pillsbury reflects, “Funny…I had an amazing obscure NZ actor for that part as I always tried to cast in NZ as much as possible. The producer simply overrode me and got him easily through his L.A. agent. When John died, the LA Times wrote a full page obit in which they wrote that in his later years, he acted mostly in pretty mediocre movies, The Scarecrow being a notable exception – his best acting performance of his later years.”
The Scarecrow is a marvelously crafted rural gothic dwelling somewhere between Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971), and is an unflinching look at corruption in a small town. It’s elegantly shot by James Bartle, who lensed unusual New Zealand genre films like Death Warmed Over (1984) and The Quiet Earth (co-written by Pillsbury) (1985). Together, he and Pillsbury saturate their idyllic natural environment in an atmosphere of stark, shadowy foreboding. Though Pillsbury accentuates the quirkiness, he never loses sight of the life or death consequences facing his young players. “I have always thought adults need to listen to children more carefully,” Pillsbury says of his cautionary tale. By exposing Klynham’s dark underbelly and depositing Salter as its central force, Pillsbury demonstrates the inherent challenges of self-determination, especially when confronted by temptation, exploitation, and the myriad of other dangers on that treacherous journey into adulthood.
If you enjoyed this piece and would like to read more essays about scarecrows in cinema and television, you can now own a copy of If I Only Had a Brain: Scarecrows in Film and TV (Cinemaniacs Journal); edited by our very own Lee Gambin.
In this journal you will find an assortment of wonderful writing and beautiful images–from the creepy, unsettling revenge horror film that was made for television The Dark Night of the Scarecrow, to an urban nightmarish ghetto-style Oz with a Motown flavour in The Wiz, from long lost obscurities such as the Buster Keaton silent film The Scarecrow and its relative Puritan Passions to every incarnation of one of Batman’s most feared members of his rogue’s gallery Dr. Jonathan Crane–it’s all in here! Powered by essays and critical analysis, the journal is also loaded with production history, never before seen pictures from various films and in-depth interviews with people involved with the movies covered.
Spawning from the Melbourne, Australia based film collective Cinemaniacs, the whole concept of this journal is to ensure that readers embrace all kinds of movies (and television, as well as theatre!) by understanding that all genres and periods of cinematic art and achievement matter.