THE SCARECROW

 (Sam Pilsbury, New Zealand, 1982) 87 minutes

THE SCARECROW

Director: Sam Pillsbury
Producer: Rob Whitehouse
Screenplay: Michael Heath, Sam Pillsbury,
based on the novel by Ronald Hugh Morrieson
Photography: Jim Bartle
Editor: Ian John
Music: Schtung
John Carradine (Salter)
Tracy Mann (Prudence Poindexter)
Jonathen Smith (Ned Poindexter)
Daniel McLaren (Les Wilson)
Denise O'Connell (Angela Potroz)
Anne Flannery (Mrs Poindexter)

Reviews and notes

Faced with the problem of turning the printed word into visual images Von Stroheim, for Greed in 1923, used a method of literal transfer: page by page, word by word, almost comma by comma.

In his 1935 film of John Buchan's The 39 Steps, Hitchcock (with Charles Bennett, Alma Reville and Ian Hay) virtually threw away the book and used his imagination. But five years later, with Rebecca, he departed scarcely at all from Daphne du Maurier. By then he was working for David Selznick - whose long string of popular films from literary best-sellers included David Copperfield (1934), A Tale of Two Cities (1935), Anna Karenina (1935), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938) and Gone With The Wind (1939). Box-office hits, all of them; but nobody could claim that a majority of cinemagoers would have read the original novels. Somehow, Selznick and his scriptwriters managed to keep faith with the book while presenting a film acceptable to audiences who were concerned only with enjoying what they saw on the screen.

My feeling about THE SCARECROW is that director Sam Pillsbury and his co-writer Michael Heath are closer to Stroheim than they are to Selznick. Obviously they were determined to do justice to Ronald Hugh Morrieson's extraordinary blend of innocence, sexuality, villainy, abnormality and boredom in a small town environment. If readers of the book are happy with the outcome, some viewers of the film may be left a little in the dark.

Darkness, of course, is very much what the film is all about. Not just the darkness of night time, but darkness of the mind and of the human spirit. Where THE SCARECROW is most successful is in its macabre juxtaposition of the twin themes of the virginal and the vile. What gives the film its powerful sense of menacing horror is its contrast between the normal and the bizarre; but, as in the book, even what is normal is open to question. By a startlingly effective use of chiaroscuro Sam Pillsbury has heightened the melodrama and the sense of looming evil.

Much the same sort of technique that Pillsbury and his lighting cameraman, Jim Bartle, have used in THE SCARECROW was a feature of Selznick's film of Tom Sawyer (cameraman, James Wong Howe). Mark Twain's story is also concerned with the outwardly uneventful life of young people in a rural community. But when Tom watched the grave-robbers and when Becky was chased by Injun Joe in the cave sequence, light and shadow made the suspense almost unbearable. So it is with Salter's appearance in Klynham. The photography gives an edge of fear to the friendly darkness of the badly lit streets. Every shape and every shadow takes on a new meaning. Klynham is no longer a quiet backwater; it is the nightmare world of every child's worst imagining.

If THE SCARECROW differs noticeably from other recent New Zealand films it is in its portrayal of a rural community. In John Laing's Beyond Reasonable Doubt, Geoff Steven's Skin Deep and Roger Donaldson's Smash Palace the inhabitants of the small towns are little more than a background to the drama of the main action. Skin Deep in particular, I thought, failed to make the most of its opportunity to show us the people of a country town in any real depth.

In adapting THE SCARECROW Sam Pillsbury and Michael Heath started with the immense advantage that Ronald Hugh Morrieson had already drawn a picture (off-centre, admittedly) of a New Zealand township. He had established a place and an assortment of people he knew and understood. But it is because they started with such a rich source that Heath and Pillsbury have, in a sense, come to grief. They have not quite integrated the strangeness of Klynham with the dullness of its everyday life. Without its linking narration (voice, Martyn Sanderson) THE SCARECROW might well be incomprehensible to someone not familiar with the original text. That is a very real fault. But it doesn't make the film any less remarkable. Vivid characterisation, authentic backgrounds and some truly astonishing lighting effects make Klynham a small town that is larger than life. It becomes, in a way, the New Zealand counterpart of all those 'typical' English villages, American settlements and French towns we have come to know in the cinema.

By now almost everyone must know that Morrieson's book opens with the arresting sentence 'The same week our fowls were stolen, Daphne Moran had her throat cut.' Without attempting to represent that in exact visual terms, the film settles for a flurry of shots which put the audience into a suitably jumpy state for what is to come. They are then introduced to Ned Poindexter (Jonathan Smith), his sister Prudence (Tracy Mann) and his friend Les Wilson (Daniel McLaren). They are at daggers drawn with the Lynch gang, Klynham's toughies - but while Ned and Les are worried about that, Prudence is in much greater danger from a madman named Salter - the throat-cutter of that rivetting first sentence.

The fact that he is a necrophiliac is not really so very odd in Klynham, which numbers among its resident population a simpleton whose fetish is to stand naked outside the local music teacher's window; a bedridden old man who is encouraged by his weird sister to fondle his nubile nursemaids; and an alcoholic undertaker whose workshop is full of rotting coffins and a lifetime's dusty rubbish. When Morrieson created Klynham he created an image of decadence, impotence and frustration. Sam Pillsbury's achievement is to have re-created that image in visual terms. His failure is to have made it a more or less faithful reproduction rather than his own impression in another medium.

Pillsbury and his team are to be congratulated for a thoroughly professional, wonderfully well observed film version of a complex literary work. Whether it is wholly satisfactory as a film is another question. It is certainly one of the most individual films yet made in the present series of New Zealand productions. That is possibly its greatest strength.

Schtung deserve particular mention for their atmospheric score. Neil Angwin's design is also a major asset. Although the look of the 1950s is well sustained, I must admit I did wonder if young lads in those days wore such brief underpants. But it is Jim Bartle who has probably done most to give THE SCARECROW the tension and the strangeness that make it so distinctive. The cast is uniformly excellent. Tracy Mann is nicely provocative yet naive as Prudence; Jonathan Smith and Daniel McLaren are believable as schoolboys trying to come to grips with a hostile world; Bruce Allpress and Jonathon Hardy are true Kiwi 'characters' and boozy cronies. As the intruder, Salter, John Carradine is appropriately sinister.

Good though it is, THE SCARECROW illustrates yet again the difficulty of changing words into pictures. The answer must lie somewhere between the absolute fidelity of a Stroheim and the possibly too simple interpretation of a Selznick. There is a lot to be said for the film that owes nothing to any other art form.
-Peter Harcourt, Sequence, Wellington Film Society, June 1982.

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