Saturday, October 31, 2015

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: The Town That Dreaded Sundown

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

I've been seeing the 2014 sequel/re-imagining of the same name on my Netflix 'recommended for you' list for a while now, but felt like I couldn't see that one until I'd re-watched the original. The only things I could remember from the 1976 Charles B. Pierce version was the trombone scene and Mary Ann (Dawn Wells) getting shot in the face. They were equally traumatic.

Then I saw a documentary by Joshua Zeman (who also did the Cropsey documentary), called Killer Legends. It examined a number of urban legends and their possible connections to real-life crimes. The section entitled "The Hookman" focused on the Texarcana Moonlight Murders - the basis for The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Now I know the movie starts off with the pronouncement that "all you're about to see is true - only the names have been changed," but really - a lot of movies, particularly slasher flicks and 1970's exploitation films - have those disclaimers. Hell, I think The Legend of Boggy Creek - another Charles B. Pierce film - says the same thing. Not to be taken too literally is what I generally thought, so it was something of an eye opener to realize that the trombone scene was based on something that really happened.

Eye opening - and very disturbing.

The Medium
I watched The Town That Dreaded Sundown on Amazon and, in a pleasant change of pace, it was substantially better than I expected. I had seen this originally sometime in the late 80's/early 90's on a VHS tape that must have been dragged through the mud. I wasn't expecting the picture to be quite so sharp or the colors to be quite so bright. It was recently restored for a blu-ray release.

The Movie
The Town That Dreaded Sundown starts with a narrator describing the town of Texarkana, Arkansas in the years just after World War II. We're treated to bucolic scenes of small town life in warm, summer sunshine. Then it swiftly turns to night and a title lets us know that it's Sunday, March 3, 1946. A young man and woman are out parking late at night on a rural lover's lane. They're soon assaulted by a man in work clothes and with a canvas bag tied tight over his head, holes cut for eyes.

"Hold still! My depth perception sucks in this thing."

The scene is fairly well done and disturbing. The acting in the film is generally not so good, but I didn't mind so much as it contributed to the 're-enactment' feel. In fact, as the movie progresses I felt less like I was watching a horror movie and more like I was watching some kind of proto-Dateline NBC true-crime show.

You know, with car chases and terrible comedy sequences starring the director as a hapless policeman.

The Town That Dreaded Your Driving, amiright?

Seriously - I hadn't remembered there being so many scenes of cars barely staying on the road as they careen about the county and the character of AC "Sparkplug" Benson is jarringly inconsistent with most of the tone of the film. It's one half slasher flick and the other half Dukes of Hazzard.

The two young people survive - barely - and the police put a watch on 'lovers lanes.' Twenty one days later Deputy Norman Ramsey hears gunshots while driving some back roads and finds an abandoned car. Charging into the pouring rain he soon comes across the body of a male victim - and then a woman tied to a tree, her back heavily bitten. He barely misses the hooded man, who escapes in a car.

The movie switches between the police and their efforts to catch the killer - including calling in the Texas Rangers - and the killer (known as The Phantom) hunting down his victims. The police segments are not particularly interesting or enjoyable, despite a car chase and plenty of 'comedy.' The murders, on the other hand, have a visceral quality, a rawness that transcends the setting an becomes disturbingly realistic. Almost voyeuristic - thought he bloodletting is kept to a minimum.

The final two murders/attacks are the most brutal, as if the killer was working to a frenzy. In the first, a young couple is waylaid on a wooded lane in the middle of town. The young woman, who plays trombone during a Junior/Senior dance earlier, is killed when the Phantom ties a hunting knife to the instrument and 'plays' it. I'm sort of glad I don't play trombone any more.

How's he even getting a seal on the mouthpiece with that bag over his head?

The last attack sees the Phantom invade a private residence - shooting a man from outside and then shooting a woman named Helen in the head twice. Despite her wounds Helen manages to escape to a nearby cornfield and eventually finds help in a neighboring farm. This leads the whole town to essentially shut down after dark - and to board their windows.

It's still just as distressing to see Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island get shot in the face, by the by.

Shhh, shhhh... go to sleep childhood, go to sleep forever...

The two primary cops - a Ranger named "Lone Wolf" Morales (yeah, that's his name) and Deputy Ramsey - have a confrontation and chase scene with the killer, but it feels tacked on to provide some sort of closure. And there really isn't any. The Phantom is never caught, though his attacks cease. Some people think he was killed. Others that he was arrested for some other crime. The movie suggests he simply stopped - for now - and that he still walks amongst the good people of Texarcana. The final shot is of some shoes - the same ones the killer has been wearing the entire film - as their owner queues up to watch The Town That Dreaded Sundown at the local Texarcana theater.

The Bottom Line
The Town That Dreaded Sundown is surprisingly effective in its murder sequences - less so in other areas. It's still a decent chiller, however, and has moments of real menace. It could use a lot less "Sparkplug," though.

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