Slashers & Serial Killers in Review: The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)
[ blahblahblah Spoilers Probably yaddayaddayadda ]
This is a weird one, you guys. Not in a deliberate, fun way. More in a… I-have-no-idea-what-the-director-was-thinking-half-the-time kind of way. I’m going to keep myself to the format I’ve been using for the most part and not get too far ahead of myself this time. I’ll just say this one might be a little less meaty than my usual review as I’m not sure how much I can say about this one. We’ll see what happens as I get further down this cuppa (Joe)…
Texarkana, Arkansas, 1946. Only eight months after WWII ended, a string of attacks and murders occur in the Arkansas side of Texarkana. Mostly young people ‘parking’ so they can get smooch-y. The killer wears a sackcloth over his face with (comically small) eyeholes cut out. Police almost catch him the second time but he gets away, so a Texas Ranger comes to town to help them. He keeps attacking and disappearing. They keep failing to catch him. There’s a lot of rain.
Okay, here we go. This film is hard to pin down, and not because it’s mysterious or ‘artistically’ presented—this film should be studied as an extreme example of Tonal Inconsistencies and The Director Needed More ‘No’ Men (and/or Women). I mean no disrespect to the man, but this film had real issues. I suppose the director could have shot the film in such a way that only in the editing process did they realize how off-kilter his approach was. And there are chunks that really work… but overall I honestly thought this was a mostly-mediocre TV movie until I looked it up after finishing.
My first issue comes right out of the gate. There’s a narrator. And not just a narration in the intro—which it does have and it’s several minutes long (or feels that way, at least)—but narration throughout the film in lulls in the psycho-thriller and investigation chunks.
It’s used to keep the viewer up to speed on how the ‘actual’ investigation went and how it affected the townspeople and such, but it’s more corny than mood-setting. Only at the end did it feel like it had any serious weight, and even then it was tarnished by another aspect I’ll get to.
After the corny intro, we get the first attack scene. Not bad. Scary guy in sack hood terrorizing two high school kids making out. He sneaks up and opens the car hood, then pulls off an essential part so they can’t drive away, then does his scary guy awfulness.
At that point in horror/thriller history, this hadn’t been done to death so it was decently disturbing in context (I checked after finishing—this came out a couple years before Carpenter’s Halloween, so depending on how much of an Italian cinema buff the director was, he probably hadn’t seen too much like what he was doing in these attack and (sometimes) kill scenes).
Then it’s back to the narration. People in town are scared. They don’t go out at night. Okay. Another attack, more of that. I could’ve lived with the narration. It was consistent after a certain point, so sure. It was the introduction of ‘Sparkplug’ that really stunk this whole thing up for me.
Sparkplug is a Sheriff’s deputy who is introduced working the front desk at the Sheriff’s office, and his first acts are to yell at and threaten a young person over the phone. This just feels awkward at first, but the deputy we’ve been focusing on, who almost caught the killer once already, comes out of a meeting and his superior tells Sparkplug not to threaten people on the phone. Sparkplug acts like he understands, then the mother of the young person calls back to say they’re doing whatever they were doing again, and Sparkplug basically tells her he’s doubling down on his threats. I got the sneaking suspicion that what we had here was a dreaded Comic Relief™ character… and boy, was I right.
It’s one thing to just be a terrible comic relief character. Rob Schneider in Judge Dredd, Jar-Jar Binks, Scrappy Doo, etc. If that’s what the filmmakers thought they needed, okay. There are two things that make Sparkplug the worst kind of comic relief—one I suspected then confirmed after watching, and the other I discovered after watching with no previous inkling of, and was (and wasn’t) surprised by.
This is a film that presents itself as a dramatization of real events, but one that is strictly accurate and only changed names (which I found out through that same post-watch research is also somewhat inaccurate). So why is there a combined 15-20 minutes of totally made-up, unneeded comic relief in the otherwise serious telling? And all by one character? It felt especially flimsy and almost insulting to those real people, possibly, to watch a film about something maybe their relatives went through or they did when they were children—only to have this idiot stumbling and grumbling around making a mockery of the investigation.
The second thing is that the comic relief character is played the director himself, Charles B. Pierce. Yep… The man who directed and produced this film casts himself in its worst part. He didn’t write the film, but he sure could’ve cut back on that or taken the character out.
The only things that balance this character out are quality performances by Ben Johnson as the somewhat fictionalized version of the real Texas Ranger who came to search for the “Phantom Killer” and Andrew Prine who plays a heavily fictionalized version of a real deputy—the one I mentioned earlier who almost caught the killer the first time, at least in the movie version. Dawn Wells—best known as Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island—also does great work in a smaller part as a woman who is victimized but escapes the killers clutches late in the film.
This one of the best scenes, though, so even though it’s pretty much just her getting shot in the face and trying to escape, it’s like Drew Barrymore taking the intro scene instead of the lead in Wes Craven’s Scream because she knew it would be one of the most memorable scenes ever (that could be an urban legend but I always liked it as a teachable moment for the impact of a well done scene in the long run, so I’m sticking with it).
But even then, they assign Sparkplug to drive the Texas Ranger and deputy around as they do the real investigating. That leads to a ridiculous driving sequence that makes the Keystone Cops driving parts look like The Fast and the Furious by comparison.
Also, there’s an extended Sparkplug chunk where they decide to disguise male deputies as young women to lure the killer out. That part is more cringe-worthy than even what you might be imagining. They walk they poorly disguised male deputies out and it’s more like Bosom Buddies or Monty Python’s Flying Circus than something that could come close to being taken seriously. Even leaving Political Correctness at the door, it’s just not funny or cute—not nearly as much as the people involved seemed to think it is. It’s just poorly done and stupid.
Now… It might surprise you to read that I don’t hate this film. I really came to hate the Sparkplug character, but I guess that’s obvious from the last few (okay, several) paragraphs.
So, what was there to enjoy?
When it wasn’t stumbling over itself to be comedic or kind of just bland in a lot of the procedural parts, the actual Phantom Killer parts are pretty well done. The hood, while having impractical tiny eyeholes, is sufficiently disturbing in appearance. The actor, Bud Davis, did a good job of acting really intense. Breathing in and out audibly in general, then more heavily in tense and active parts, causing the cloth of the sack hood to be sucked into his mouth and blown out—something that became more common will stock killer types, but probably hadn’t been done much at the time—adding to the disturbing feel of the character. I wouldn’t be surprised if The Phantom’s sack-hooded appearance had some influence on Jason’s in the second Friday the 13th film (pre-hockey mask), which came out only a handful of years later.
But even then, there are issues with those parts too.
In one of the attacks, the killer sees that the young woman he’s bound to a tree has a trombone in a case. He takes it out and examines it, then takes a folding knife out of his boot, opens it, then secures it to the end of the trombone. He proceeds to kill this young woman by using the trombone slide to slam the knife repeatedly into her back.
This scene is very strange, and I considerate one of the best and worst things in the movie. The perverse energy the actor puts into the killer and the impracticality of the method make it genuinely entrancing to watch, but it’s more out of slasher kill novelty than genuine quality of presentation. I suppose it was… imaginative. But that’s part of the problem with this film…
I did some research and the real girl portrayed in this scene had a band instrument, sure. That’s probably where they got the idea for the scene. But in reality, she was (unfortunately) shot in the head, like her childhood friend who was with her. They didn’t even find the instrument until after the case had been closed. Only problem as far as this film’s integrity is concerned—it was an alto saxophone, which would have made the ridiculous version of the murder shown in the film impossible.
But that gets into another thing that bothers me about this film—for a film that presents itself as totally true other than name changes, it’s just not very accurate. To begin with, the actual attacks and murders were on the Texas side of Texarkana, not Arkansas.
I have no personal feelings about this killer/case, but when you make such a big deal out of how close your film is to the truth, don’t make at least half the movie up—and please, please don’t add an awful comic relief character that’s not even based on a real person from the case. I mention this lack of connection to the facts of the case because it gets at one of the core problems—sensationalistic bullshit being used to heighten the experience (I guess?) or just put ‘butts in seats’, I suppose. And there’s a long-standing tradition of this Based on a True Story (we swear!) approach to getting an audience… It just doesn’t work when you are so blatant in your disregard for the truth of it. I mean, if you’re going to actually attempt it. Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are both presented as this true story kind of thing, even though both are only very loosely based on the real killer Ed Gein. They just took the spirit and essence of that awful man’s grisly doings and went their own way with it. So if you’re going to present the story as accurate—as they do in The Town That Dreaded Sundown and be so close to certain things, why change so many of them?
WHAT I LIKED:
- -Killer’s Appearance is unsettling enough and probably inspired better films that came later.
- -Ben Johnson as Texas Ranger on the case.
- -Andrew Pine as competent deputy.
- -Dawn Wells in a Gilligan’s Island trans-dimensional cameo (sooo true).
- -Period setting details like cars and clothes seemed decently accurate.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:
- -Tonal clusterfuckery
- -Presented as accurate; is also Super Inaccurate
- -S P A R K P L U U U U U U U U U U U U U G !
I guess I had more to say than I thought…
Okay, there is just no way I can call this film a creative success. It gets in its own way far too frequently. But it does have some quality (proto-)slasher material, so I’m torn. Or split, let’s call it. Right down the middle.
I’ll give The Town That Dreaded Sundown…………………….5/10.
PATRICK LOVELAND writes screenplays, novels, and short stories. By day, he works at a state college in Southern California, where he lives with his wife and young daughter. His stories have appeared in anthologies published by April Moon Books, Bold Venture Press, Sirens Call Publications, Indie Authors Press, PHANTAXIS, and the award-winning Crime Factory zine. Patrick’s first novel, A TEAR IN THE VEIL, was published in June of 2017 by April Moon Books. Twitter: https://twitter.com/pmloveland Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pmloveland/ Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00S78LF9M Blog: https://patrickloveland.com/