You know how you watch a movie and you really want to love it, but the stupid fucking thing just won't play ball and meet you halfway? That was the experience watching The Town That Dreaded Sundown. What a fantastic title. If nothing else, that title and that front cover - a hooded maniac looming over the town drenched in orange sunset - is just perfect. It anticipates a truly unsettling horror film, one that really gets under the skin. And just look at the bad guy. There's something about a killer in a white hood in this movie that dredges up feelings of dread - maybe because it's a little reminiscent of the Klu Klux Klan, maybe it's just the simplicity of the design. Whatever it is, that guy is a lunatic for the ages.
|Director: Charles B. Pierce
Stars: Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Dawn Wells, Jimmy Clem, Jim Citty
Writers: Earl E. Smith
So we've got an amazing title, a terrific bad guy, and some seriously tense atmosphere. Add in some sombre narration, documentary-style, and initially it feels as if The Town That Dreaded Sundown will turn out to be something truly special. And that's the kicker. It's competent in most regards, and at some points is extremely well executed, but for every great scene there's one that follows which feels like you've just been kicked in the nuts by Nelson Muntz from The Simpsons and taunted you with a "haw-haw!".
It's a shame that director and producer Charles B. Pierce's Sundown doesn't go completely for broke like Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. In Hooper's classic, the tension is high from the outset and only increases from that first fateful moment in that house, reaching nearly unbearable levels at the famous dinner scene and the finale. In Sundown, the tension and nicely staged scenes of horror are unfortunately and almost fatally sabotaged by idiotic humour that, ironically enough, is the doing of a moronic character played by Pierce himself. Though the film stumbles on numerous occasions and is able to recover, providing more than enough suspenseful scenes including a terrifying home invasion, it never quite reaches the horrific levels of Hooper's masterpiece. And it really could have become a film that was spoken in the same revered tones as other 70's classic horror films like Massacre, The Exorcist, Dawn of the Dead and Jaws.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown is apparently based on real events, which lends the proceedings a sinister edge (although apparently writer Earl E. Smith and producer/director Pierce have taken some artistic liberties, particularly with a scene involving a trombone). The events of the film are set just after World War II in Texarkana, a U.S. town that straddles the Texas/Arkansas border, although it appears that we're meant to be watching the a reconstruction of the events of that time thirty years on (aka the year Sundown was actually released). Texarkana is a small, sleepy town trying to rebuild after the the war, rationing and the return of U.S. soldiers. It's a town used to dealing with problems, but not one like this: on Sunday March 3 1946 a couple are brutally assaulted in their car at a well known makeout spot. The couple survive, but the next couple to be targeted three weeks later aren't so lucky. Even more horrifically, the police find signs that the female victim had been "chewed" on. The attacker is only known by his white sack hood. Because he has no apparent motive, and nothing else is known of him, he's dubbed "The Phantom Killer", and the people of Texarkana realise they're dealing with something totally new: a serial killer, at a time when that term wasn't even used.
To deal with this new breed of criminal, the police chief brings in Texas Ranger Captain J. D. Morales (Ben Johnson), who teams up with Deputy Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine) who happened to be the officer who discovered the first murdered couple. But not only do Morales and Ramsey have to track down a killer with no apparent motive, they also have to deal with an increasingly ghoulish media, the lunatics who come forward to confess to the crimes, and the ineptitude of Patrolman A. C. Benson (Pierce).
Benson, aka "Sparkplug", provides most of the film's so-called humour. This is humour on a Benny Hill level of nuance. He's a completely inept character, unable to do anything right, from threatening people who call the police station to report problems, to losing his keys, to driving a patrol car into a goddamn lake. The fuckhead derails each and every scene he appears in, and any creepy atmosphere that is carried over from a previous scene is quickly evaporated when Benson appears. There are two scenes involving Benson that would have fit better in a Carry On film, rather than a gritty slasher/cop procedural film like Sundown.
Does the Benson character completely ruin the film? Not quite. When it sticks to creating a feeling of dread, Sundown really works. The killer is genuinely disturbing, breathing heavily through his mask, attacking not with finesse but with an animal ferocity. There's a scene involving Gilligan's Island star Dawn Wells that is expertly shot and edited for maximum impact. And Sundown's meta-style, with the narrator setting the scene for a 70's audience, and having a shot at the end of a crowd of people lining up to see "The Town That Dreaded Sundown" in cinemas, reminds you that there actually was a serial killer in Texarkana, even if some of the events were tweaked or fabricated for filmic purposes. It's just a shame that Pierce didn't just keep the film as coldly and brutally effective as it might have been. He stages the attack scenes nicely and creates the sort of edgy and clinical atmosphere that David Fincher achieved in Zodiac. He doesn't need to splash the screen with gore to make an impact; the material is strong enough to speak for itself.
Sundown is an extremely low budget affair, so that means it feels rough around the edges, but that actually suits the material rather than hinders it. Of course, being a low budget film, the acting, other than the leads, is hit or miss. Johnson and Prine make solid, reliable leads, even if we learn little about their characters. The rest of the actors, save Pierce, are mostly window dressing. But, look, that's fine, given the material - we weren't expecting a Bergman film. As far as technical merits go, James W. Roberson's cinematography is the standout, effective and moody, and free from stylistic or indulgent flourishes that would have worked against the material. Pierce uses slow-motion in a number of scenes, but other than that he handles the material in a straightforward manner, although the infamous trombone scene feels tacky and out of place compared with The Phantom's other kills. You can see why The Town That Dreaded Sundown achieved cult movie status. It has moments of greatness, has the added benefit of being based on true events, and has the guts to stick with an ambiguous, downbeat ending rather than a Hollywood-ized denouement. Unfortunately it is wildly uneven in spots, and to be honest doesn't really live up to its reputation, although this might also be due to the fact that we've been inundated with flashier, gorier serial killer flicks since. Fans will no doubt be delighted that it finally has a local Blu-Ray release. For first timers, you might want to temper your expectations.