The Town That Dreaded Sundown has a lot of things going for it. First, there’s that title, which is fantastic. Second, it’s based on a real crime spree that’s eerie enough to still be creepy all these years later. Third, it was shot in rural Arkansas, giving the film an isolated atmosphere that really works. Finally—but perhaps most importantly—it’s an early entry in the slasher genre that gives us an iconic killer that looks an awful lot like bag-head Jason from Friday the 13th Part II. Unfortunately, the movie seems to be at war with itself and takes every opportunity to undercut the tension with lame attempts at humor and a plodding narrative that make this story move slower than Arkansas molasses.
For movie fans familiar with Charles B. Pierce, The Town that Dreaded Sundown feels like familiar territory. Pierce was rocketed to stardom in 1972 with his ultra-indie Bigfoot horror film The Legend of Boggy Creek, which made loads of cash and was the tenth-highest grossing film of that year. Pierce’s formula was simple: take some high school students and some amateur actors out into the swamps, hire some local townspeople to recite lines and talk about the Fouke Monster (the Bigfoot creature that allegedly terrorized the inhabitants of the town), stage some scary attack scenes that take place in the dark, add a pseudo-documentary narration by a guy who sounds credible, and Bob’s your uncle, you’ve got an indie horror movie. The Legend of Boggy Creek, is not a great movie, but it is the standard by which all other Bigfoot movies are judged because it feels so authentic…or as authentic as a movie about a mythical beast can be. By using people who are clearly not acting or giving any sort of performance, Pierce was able to give his bizarre story some amount of credibility.
The story of The Town That Dreaded Sundown is legitimately fascinating, and is taken from a real series of murders that occurred outside Texarkana, Arkansas in 1946. A guy that became known as the Phantom Killer attacked eight people by moonlight over a period of about 3 months. During this time, some of the citizens would arm themselves and hide out indoors after the sun went down, while others would try to bait the killer into the open so they could attack him. After the eighth attack, with Texas Rangers constantly patrolling the town, the murders simply stopped and never started again. The killer was never caught. The Moonlight Murders, as they came to be known, are still officially unsolved.
But I’d argue that most of the other elements outside of the kill scenes simply fail. There doesn’t seem to be much of a script to work with. Andrew Prine, who did noble work in another 1976 film, Grizzly, stars in this movie as a police deputy investigating the murders and has said that he had to write the ending of the movie because the script didn’t have one. I believe him, because it feels like everyone just showed up at the locations for each day of filming and improvised on the spot. I admire this sense of guerrilla filmmaking and creating something out of nothing on a flick like The Legend of Boggy Creek, but the method leaves too much on the table for a story with as much meat on the bones as the Moonlight Murders.
The Wild Bunch) to portray as a Texas Ranger, but the character is so exaggerated that he’s almost like a superhero version of a Texas Ranger. He’s described as something like the ultimate Ranger, the best at what he does (like Wolverine), but the character we meet never feels like he’s earned that reputation. Johnson feels like a fish out of water in the film, which is strange given the actor’s experience and south-western heritage. I think it’s the performance that feels false, which I can only attribute to the shortcomings in the script. Pierce also cast Dawn Wells--aka Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island--as one of the attack victims. It’s great to see Wells off the island, but her appearance feels completely out of the blue and it’s impossible for me not to not think about Gilligan’s Island for the entire time she’s on screen. Both Ben Johnson and Robert Wells feel like they’re here because of stunt casting, and it’s distracting. The only actor who bears any sort of gravitas on screen (aside from the masked killer, played by stuntman Bud Davis) is Andrew Prine, who comes off like a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company compared to everyone else.
The worst and most offensive ingredient here is the lame attempt at comedy. Charles B. Smith has inserted himself into the movie as a wacky patrolman named “Sparkplug,” which was a real nickname based on his high level of energy. I don’t inherently have a problem with a director appearing in their own movie, but when the performance feels as contrived and tone-deaf as it does here, I have to call foul. The character was completely fabricated for this film, and doesn’t belong. There’s a scene where Sparkplug dresses in drag to lure the killer out into the open, and he finds himself constantly rebuffing the attention of his fellow officer, who can’t seem to keep his hands off Sparkplug’s fake boobs. Hilarious stuff, especially for a true crime story about brutal murders that are still unsolved. An unwelcome “buddy cop” vibe keeps resurfacing all throughout the movie, usually accompanied by musical cues like a slide trombone to remind us that we’re supposed to laugh. Maybe Pierce and his frequent screenwriting collaborator Earl E. Smith thought the story needed some levity, which I understand. But not like this, guys…not like this.
Read more of Heath Holland's writing at his blog Cereal at Midnight!