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The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1977)

Dir: Charles B. Pierce

March 3rd, 1946, in the small town of Texarkana, Arkansas, a hooded man brutally attacks a courting couple in their car.

Police Chief Sullivan (Jim Citty), Deputy Ramsey (Andrew Prine) and Sheriff Barker (Robert Aquino) have no clues to who the assailant is and they warn the townsfolk about parking on lonely roads. On March 24, Deputy Ramsey, while on patrol finds an abandoned car and another couple who have been attacked…only this time they have both been shot dead.

The killer, now known as "The Phantom", seems to have no motive, the Cops have no clues and the townsfolk live in fear of sundown.
With the case going nowhere Texas Ranger Captain Morales (Ben Johnson) arrives in Texarkana to help with the hunt…..

 

The sadly late Charles B. Pierce will always be best known for two films (both semi-documentary style) the long time drive-in favourite “The Legend of Boggy Creek” (about a creature in a boggy creek) and this movie, based on a real murder case, “The Town that Dreaded Sundown”.
The two films share much as far as their style goes (both share delightfully earnest narration by Vern Stierman) and as far as that classic drive-in mixture of good time humour and horror goes.
Although in “Sundown” the horror is far stranger due to the fact the attacks by the killer are genuinely sadistic and utterly cold-blooded. And this is despite the comedy music and slapstick chaos that surrounds them.

The look of ‘The Phantom’, with his dirty sackcloth mask (a sadly forgotten, pre-Slasher movie, slasher performance by stuntman and general all-rounder Bud Davis), is delightfully sinister and brutally simplistic and to say that “Friday the 13th part 2” owes as much to “Sundown” as it does to Bava’s “Bay of Blood” is an understatement.

And the attack scenes are just as brutally straight to the point as the killer and Pierce never pulls back from the sadistic, drawn out, violence of them.
Despite the ‘good ol’ boy’ energy and comedic stylings of the rest of the film the attacks are full on horror movie creations and very cruel.
A guy gets shot in the head twice but still manages to gurgle and writhe around before dying, a woman gets shot twice as well (once in the face no less) but agonisingly tries to drag her blood caked body to safety, victims are generally bashed, punched and thrown around.

In the film’s most infamous moment of warped sadism a woman is tied to a tree, her face to the trunk, and is repeatedly, slowly, stabbed with a knife that's tied to her dead boyfriend’s trombone!
It’s a truly bizarre and twisted sequence that will stay with you forever.

The comedic aspects sometimes sit a bit uncertainly with such scenes of pain and death but when added to the great location cinematography (sadly hardly ever seen in its full-scope as most prints are VHS pan and scan, as shamefully no proper DVD has been released) , sunny small-town hokum, drive-in aesthetics and energetic performances they do manage to blend together most of the time and manage to make the movie at least more approachable for a general audience, but are also never obtrusive enough (some dodgy ‘wah, wah, wah, waaaaaaaah’ musical cues aside) to water down the film for a horror audience.
And hell, they just make the film more fun in that 70’s drive-in way that you simply don’t get today.

Performances are all good, with versatile 70’s favourite Prine (“The Centerfold Girls”, “Chisum“) giving the only fully serious turn in the movie (away from the victims) as even the mighty and stoic Ben Johnson (“The Getaway”, “The Wild Bunch”) yuks it up on a couple of occasions when he comes off worst at the fully comedic hands of his designated dangerous driver "Sparkplug" Benson (Charles B. Pierce himself) who is the one aspect that really splits opinion on this film. Especially when Benson has to dress in drag during an attempted sting operation.
The laughs are there, but they're damn broad (in more way than one).
Should Pierce have written himself out (or got writer Earl E. Smith to write him out)?
Perhaps…but as said, the film works on a different, drive-in/good time redneck aesthetic, level with this comedy in it but it still entertains and the low brow slapstick never (crucially) waters down the horrific aspects of the plot.

So not without its flaws (although how much those flaws annoy are purely down to how you react to the comedy) but generally “The Town that Dreaded Sundown” has remained a firm favourite for over three decades for very good reasons and is essential viewing for any fan of bygone era, low budget drive-in movie making and the violence still manages to pack a punch even today.
Rip Mr Pierce, may your celestial boggy creek never get drained to make way for Angel-designated condos.