Friday, August 27, 2010

VHS REVIEW: The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976)


RUN TIME: 90Min.
DIRECTOR: Charles B. Pierce
CAST: Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Dawn Wells, Jimmy Clem, Jim Citty, Charles B. Pierce
TAGLINE: In 1946 this man killed five people… Today he still lurks the streets of Texarkana, Ark.

SUMMARY: A hooded murderer is stalking the street of Texarkana, Arkansas, terrifying the town’s populace. Based on actual events which occurred during a three-month period in 1946.

THE FILM: Right from the start of the film I was struck by the use of documentary-style narration that made me recall the Robert Stack-narrated Unsolved Mysteries television series. I thought it an odd choice but it’s well done and sets a dire and factual tone to the film that enhances the fact that is based on an actual string of unsolved murders.

Texarkana looked normal during the daylight hours, but everyone dreaded sundown.

The film is set just at end of WW2 in Texarkana, Arkansas as servicemen are returning home and things are beginning to settle down in the small town, it's a setting familiar to those who’ve seen THE PROWLER (1981).  A young couple leaves a dance and head to the local lovers lane in a wooded area just outside of town for some necking. While parked the two are attacked my a masked assailant who wears a sack over his face with two eyelets cut-out which has me thinking that the producers of FRIDAY THE 13th 2 may have copped the idea, it’s a creepy and effective. The victims are severely beaten; additionally the woman is savagely bitten on her neck, back and breasts. The police are unable to get much information from the couple aside from the fact that he wore a sack over his head; there are no other leads or motives.

Several weeks pass and the culprit, dubbed The Phantom Killer, attacks another couple, this time bludgeoning them to death. Again, there are no clues or motive, the police are stymied. Deputy Ramsey (Andrew Prine, GRIZZLY) calls in a Texas Ranger, Captain J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson, THE WILD BUNCH, CHERRY 2000) to assist on the case.

One of the tactics devised by Capt. Morales is a sting operation involving the officers posing as couples at the various lovers-lanes around town in an effort to flush out the killer. The police force is comprised entirely of men and the operation requires them to dress in drag. It’s good for a quick chuckle, but the humor is out of place in this film. We get that the local police force is ill equipped and out of their league, but there’s some real good ol’ boy Dukes of Hazard-type shenanigans going on here, it’s completely out of place and took me out of the film for a bit. A lot of the 70’s drive-in slashers featured inept police forces; THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT is a prime example, and it’s doesn’t work there either. These dark, disturbing films don’t need comedic relief, it’s detraction in my opinion, too goofy.

Making up for the comical shortcoming is a true sense of dread throughout the film. The kill scenes are eerie, utilizing guns, a pick-axe, blunt objects, knives, and the infamously beyond bizarre trombone that’s been festooned with a knife and used as a weapon during one of the murders. The murders are sadistic and disturbing, well done stuff. The Phantom Killer is an imposing figure, and the sack over the head is frightening. The shots of the killer breathing heavily as the sack over his mouth bellows in and out are very effective.

DVD: I do not believe there is a proper Region 1 DVD of The Town That Dreaded Sundown which is damn shame, this film deserves to be more widely recognized.  It is only available on VHS, DVD imports and pirated copies.

VERDICT: Despite some ill advised comical interludes I think THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN holds up extremely well for a 34 year old drive-in slasher flick. A recommended from me, for sure. *** (3 out of 5 stars)