Director CHARLES B. PIERCE, who happily spoiled some slumber in my youth with ‘72s THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, is also responsible for sibling pseudo-documentary THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN. I have to give praise to PIERCE, he did so much with so little and his influence on horror films directly or indirectly is mucho grande. I sometimes wish that TOWN was more traditionally structured than it is, but who is to say how much of its hemming and hawing contributes to the segments that auspiciously burn? I’ll be honest with you, my brain has a slight tendency to fog and twiddle its mini brain-thumbs when subjected to police procedurals and this movie spends a smidge too much time with the men in uniform for my taste, but when it indulges the weird workings of its “Phantom Killer,” it hits a raw primal nerve. Horror fans weaned on the actions of silent, masked eighties killers may find the scares here borderline commonplace but I pity the poor souls who saw this one in a drive-in in 1976. What a ride home that must have been.
TOWN is loosely based on the true story of the “Moonlight Killer” who murdered five people and scared the crap out of countless more in Texarkana, Arkansas circa 1946. Although the film isn’t a slave to the facts it presents itself as a documentary with a voice over and a statement that only the names have been changed. Ingeniously the film breaks from its doc-identity whenever the hell it pleases and it’s almost like having someone telling you a story and then pushing you into the room where it is currently taking place.
PIERCE tends to walk an indirect line and I’m not sure if all of the film’s multiple back and forth tonal changes work for me. The director himself, in the role of patrolman “Sparkplug,” plays foil to BEN JOHNSON’s straight shooter Capt. Morales as quirky comedy relief (or perhaps to illustrate the sweet natured goodness of the town) but once you get a taste for the movie’s darker talents, the levity can be distracting. In the end though, that may just be a matter of my own taste. Because it could, I’d rather that the movie just drag the viewer through the mud but I’d hate to pull a card and watch the whole house come down. As is, the film delivers when it needs to and perhaps it is its sometimes-sunny disposition that makes the moments of terror feel like such authentic invasions on everyday tranquility. Indeed PIERCE may have known exactly what he was doing. How else to explain the clever casting of perceived “girl next door” DAWN WELLS (GILLIGAN’S ISLAND’s Mary Ann) as a victim? What better way to cut to the chase when visualizing the heart of a small town being attacked?
Anyway, my impetus for this post is really to point you as soon as possible to the fact that THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is on YouTube as we speak in rather amazing looking widescreen form. Rumor has it that some nice gent grabbed a French DVD and the sound from an English language VHS tape and mashed them together to wondrous effect. T.T.D.S. has never been on DVD and the VHS edition is croppy/crappy and excessively dark in places so this may be your best shot at viewing this movie adequately. I know YouTube is not the best way to watch a movie but it’s the best way to watch THIS movie right now. If you’ve only seen the VHS you will be impressed by the film’s sharpness and the fact that PIERCE really does have a good eye for composition. Scenes previously hard to decipher are now sufficiently clear. Turn off the lights, hook up earphones or a speaker, press the “Full Screen” option on the right corner of the YouTube frame and sit back and enjoy HERE. Who knows when it’ll get yanked?
Due to trauma-stalgia I think I might enjoy the swampy styling of BOGGY over DREADED but there’s much to appreciate in PIERCE’s later film too. Both films have that legend-being-told-over-a-fire vibe and capture a recognizable quiet night community-shared paranoia. As I said I feel this one jumps the tracks at intervals but there is an overall sense of mystery (the killer was never caught) and a wonderful lost in time rural landscape to consider too. Plus the killer, with his eye-holed sack hood looks an awful lot like one of the genres most famous horror icons…John Merrick. Ha, you thought I was going to say Jason Voorhees in F13:P2 didn’t you? Curve ball!