Wednesday, May 16, 2018


by Heath Holland
This AIP cult classic is a mixed bag (on someone’s head).

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.
For The Town That Dreaded Sundown four years later, he returns to this formula, mixing some legitimate Hollywood actors with locals to make the movie feel more like a documentary and less like a polished cinematic experience. He also returns to the pseudo-documentary style, hiring the same guy who narrated The Legend of Boggy Creek (Vern Stierman) to give a news-like quality to his story. At the beginning of the film, the narrator tells us that what we’re about to see is true, including where it happened and how it happened. He then tell us “Only the names have been changed.” Or to quote the poet Bon Jovi: “It’s all the same. Only the names will change.” As it turns out, that’s not quite true, and there’s quite a bit of artistic license taken with The Town That Dreaded Sundown.

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.
That’s what makes the 1976 movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown ultimately so frustrating. This is an incredible story, and thanks to its unsolved nature, it still feels potent today. Yet Charles B. Pierce’s film feels like it takes two steps back for every step forward. His depiction of the murders themselves, conducted by a man wearing flannel, denim, and a sack with eye holes cut out of it, are legitimately terrifying. He doesn’t shy away from the real terror of the violence, lingering on the sadism and the misogyny of the attacker, and ultimately his frustrated rage. The death scenes in the film are potent and sad, as they should be. While the visuals and the kill style seem like a definite influence on Friday the 13th (as far as I know, no official admission of that inspiration has ever been confessed), we can’t root for this guy like we can Jason. Mrs. Voorhees’ baby boy is justified in some weird way, but the killer in The Town That Dreaded Sundown seems to be a random murderer. The chaos of the kill and the sick pleasure the murderer seems to take in his work keep us from enjoying ourselves in the detached way that we are allowed in more successful slasher films.

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.
Somehow, Charles B. Pierce was able to get Ben Johnson (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.
Yet it’s still hard to write the movie off. The horror elements are strong enough to warrant a viewing, and there’s enough intrigue within the concept to make this interesting. Sure, it’s inconsistent tonally (how many times have a said that about a movie from 1976?) and the director and screenwriter don’t do this movie any favors with the pacing, often completely failing to build tension. Still, there’s something there. This is the definition of a cult movie, the kind of film that was discovered by cinemaniacs on video store shelves in the VHS days but that languished into obscurity when VHS gave way to DVD. Shout! Factory legitimized the film with their Blu-ray release in 2013, but it’s a sad fact that Shout! Factory releases can’t make an inadequate movie into a better one. Because of its haunting concept and somewhat inconsistent execution, this was a film that was ripe for a remake, as Patrick writes in his review of the 2014 reimaging. Still, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy 1976’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown. I think it’s a movie that might be better viewed for its historical contributions to horror than as a great horror movie itself, but them’s the breaks. If the Bag head Phantom Killer really was an inspiration for Bag Head Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th Part II (and I don’t see how it couldn’t be, given that the killers are one eye-hole away from being twins), that alone makes this significant.
Finally, I’ve discovered that every October, just days before Halloween, the town of Texarakana shows this movie in a public park. Everyone is invited and admission is free. That sounds cool enough to me that I’m actually considering checking it out one of these days. I like that this flawed movie has become an annual tradition for the community that is its subject. Charles B. Pierce began his career by scaring people in the dark with images of a monster; it seems somehow fitting that all these years later, the people of Texarkana are still haunted by his images depicting a monster of a different kind.

Read more of Heath Holland's writing at his blog Cereal at Midnight!

1 comment:

  1. The video box to this one haunted me as a child but I had much the same reaction when I finally viewed it as an adult.