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.
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 ..
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 Bavas 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 films
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
Its 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 70s drive-in way that you simply dont get today.
are all good, with versatile 70s 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.