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The Town That Dreaded Sundown

February 10th, 2011 by unkle lancifer · 20 Comments

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!

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Tags: General Horror · Repeat Offenders




20 responses so far ↓

  • 1 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Feb 10, 2011 at 9:03 am

    Here is the first segment…follow it to the rest… Folks who have only caught TTTDS on VHS, does this not look swank as hell?

  • 2 Mike RamirezNo Gravatar // Feb 10, 2011 at 10:54 am

    I actually watched this on YouTube a few months ago, and while I didn’t care for the tonal shifts, it’s worth noting that this movie contains one of the most unique murder scenes I have ever seen! I was surprised that it wasn’t mentioned, but I’m assuming you didn’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t seen the film.

  • 3 David FullamNo Gravatar // Feb 10, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    Pierce’s Western “Grey Eagle,” is traumatizing for another reason. Pierce’s performance as an insane half breed Indian, is the most over the top performance ever captured on celluloid. After a minute of it, you will begin to doubt your own sanity.

  • 4 Professor Von WhiskersenNo Gravatar // Feb 10, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    Thanks for the tip about it being on YouTube. I’ve been waiting for this to come out on DVD for years.

  • 5 whatever1964No Gravatar // Feb 10, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    I’ve loved this movie since I was a kid… remember seeing ads for it and Boggy Creek (and a lot of those other Schick-Sunn classics)…. if I recall correctly, there was some pretty forward thinking discussion in this about the killer being a sexual sadist that really predated concepts in The Silence of The Lambs about criminal profiling, etc… but I agree that as smart as it is in spots, it’s as dumb in other spots…. but growing up in the South, it really gave me a good case of the willies…. great article….

  • 6 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Feb 10, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    David,

    I might have to see that. I had no idea it was Pierce playing that part in TTTDS until it was over. I was like, who does this guy think he is Don Knotts? I started having Apple Dumpling Gang flashbacks. I was thinking why is the Director letting him mug to such an extent? Now I get it. Then, once I knew it was him I kind of saw a little more of the humor in it. What a nut.

    Prof,

    No prob! I couldn’t keep it to myself when I saw how good it looked. My vhs looks really bad and I have not watched it in years because of it. I know sometimes the VHS grime ads something but in this case I find the DVD (even on Youtube) a real improvement esp. in the night scenes!

    Whatever64,

    You are so right about that sadism undercurrent and even though they didn’t go into length about it the scene with the trombone spoke volumes. Plus he usually attacked couples which I thought was interesting. Whatever the film’s faults I find all the scenes with the killer to be exceptional and the fact that he was not caught ads a Zodiac killer vibe to it and Pierce really did do a great job of capturing the spirit of the town I think too.

  • 7 sob317No Gravatar // Feb 10, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    My friend had this way, way back in day on a dubbed VHS with “The Cars That Eat People” AKA ” The Cars That Ate Paris”. Back in the two-piece VCR days. Luckily for us, my friends Dad had a connection with some video store owner and we always had boxes and boxes full of movies to watch.

    For some reason it was always eschewed in favor of other tried and true classics of the time cause hey, there are only so many hours in an eleven year olds’ weekend and with so many movies to watch there was no time to waste on something that might not be up to snuff.

    It wouldn’t be until about 20 years later that I would catch this on TV and boy how I wished I could have been watching with nostalgia tinted glasses. As mentioned it does stray in places but the overall vibe is unique. For those of us who watched Boggy Creek or Sasquatch, The Legend of Bigfoot as kids and were taken in and terrified with the documentary style this drives right up your alley and drops you off at your front door.
    I only wish we had decided to plug this one in years ago as the added bonus of a kiddie-trauma would have been fantastic when re-watching.

  • 8 craigNo Gravatar // Feb 10, 2011 at 6:38 pm

    Unk, I feel the need to pick up on something you said about your brain twiddling it’s thumbs during police procedure in this one. For the longest time now I’ve been complaining to anyone who will listen that there’s just too damned much of that in movies and in books now (even a recent visit to one of my favs, BLACK CHRISTMAS, left me in some ‘meh’ territory in realizing that it’s too bogged down with that stuff). I guess it’s considered hokey by today’s standards, but I loved it when the characters in movies would solve their own problems, mysteries, and murders. I just defended MURDER SHE WROTE the other day because it’s true to that form; sure a sheriff may pop in, but it’s just for a cup of tea then he’s sent on his way. If they produced Scooby Doo cartoons in this day and age, you just know the gang would all be junior members of the local CSI. I’m totally with you on this one. This whole police procedure thing is the most over-saturated plot device in stories now, and it’s got to go.

  • 9 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Feb 10, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    Sob31t,

    I missed this one in my youth too. I don’t think I even heard about it till about 10 years ago. The trailer alone would have gotten to me as a kid, I wish I’d seen it back then too. I was wondering while watching it if it would play for a young audience today at all. Would they have the patience for it? I was gonna say say something about that but whenever I suggest that kids today “wouldn’t get this” a young reader pops up and tells me “Nope, you’re wrong, I love this movie!” Anyway, even though I didn’t see it way back then though it does bring me back. For me, just seeing a movie that takes place in a town where people don’t lock their doors makes me feel nostalgic.

    Craig,

    Ha. I read your first line as “I feel the need to PICK ON something you said” and I suddenly started wondering what part of the post was offensive. Like, Oh crap, what did I say now? Yes, the police thing has got to go! It always feels like filler to me or like the parents have shown up to wreck the party. For the most part if you are a cop and your last name isn’t Bracket, I want you to leave my horror movie. Luckily in Black Christmas it is at least John Saxon and so I can deal with it. I have no patience for the CSI thing and the chemicals and such unless Dana Scullly is on hand to make it sound interesting. Plus I hate court rooms unless it’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

  • 10 aunt johnNo Gravatar // Feb 10, 2011 at 8:01 pm

    I just read that last line of Unk’s last comment as, “Plus I hate rom coms unless it’s To Kill a Mockingbird.”

    And then I re-read it and realized the err of my late in the day dyslexia…

  • 11 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Feb 10, 2011 at 8:06 pm

    Mike,

    Yep! I assume you are talking about the trombone? I mentioned it in my comment to Whatever1964 and I felt a bit worried about going too much into it. It’s a very strange scene. It’s horrible and yet it’s funny too in a way and there’s just a weird energy about it because it’s so non-aggressive. It kind of reminded me of the Michael Myers head tilt thing like the guy is just figuring out how things work and the results of his actions. Definitely the stand-out scene in the film for me. Maybe I’ll do a whole post on it sometime. It’s just so bizarre.

    Aunt John,

    Yes the hilarious rom-com “To kill a Mocking Bird”, that has Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher in it right? (If I spelt those names wrong it’s because I refuse to look them up.)

  • 12 Gary BushNo Gravatar // Feb 10, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    I was 10 years old when this was released, and I have very vivid memories of the TV spots. They scared the hell outta me! Looking at the trailer, the ad even scares me a little as an adult.

    I did see the movie as an adult (in fact, several times). Although alot of the “humor” is pretty cheesy, the scares are rock-solid. What a great 70s drive-in horror gem!

    Incidentally, the mystery of the killer’s identity is believed to have been solved. No one is for absolute certain, but many law enforcement officers and independent researchers believe they know who was responsible for these killings. Read more about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Youell_Swinney

  • 13 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Feb 10, 2011 at 8:19 pm

    Gary,

    Yea that trailer is still awesome! I love that trailer. Like the best parts of the movie it has a “It’s happening right outside your window” thing. The way the killer bursts through the door is nuts and I love how the characters are presented as “real” with the dates below them. How ahead of the time is that advertising? Thanks for the link too it fascinates me that the guy was never charged or caught.

    David Fullam,

    I also think it’s kind of weird/awesome that Pierce decided that his character should dress up as a woman and be molested by a co-worker in a car. Most directors would get someone else to play that part.

  • 14 Amanda By NightNo Gravatar // Feb 11, 2011 at 10:25 am

    I remember my parents renting this movie when it first came out. I wanted to watch it, but they said it was a true crime movie and would be too scary. I don’t remember much about their thoughts, except that they thought they were right to not let me see it.

    I only saw TTTDS for the 1st time about 2 or 3 years ago. It was SO good. I know the bumbling cop parts are odd, but overall, I really like the total product.

    I think the bumbling cops in Last House on the Left bothered me more, but I’m not sure now…

  • 15 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Feb 11, 2011 at 10:37 am

    Amanda,

    You’re right the bumbling cops in Last House are way worse. Here they just kind of take the steam out of the movie but in Last House it feels so inappropriate. My least favorite bumbling cops though is Halloween 5. Maybe I could stand bumbling cops a little better if they didn’t always come with wacky theme music!

  • 16 Amanda By NightNo Gravatar // Feb 11, 2011 at 11:06 am

    OK, I admit it, I LOVE the cops in Halloween 5. Who thought of that music? It’s so wrong for the movie… It’s probably my favorite part though.

  • 17 David FullamNo Gravatar // Feb 11, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    When the man cut loose with the over the top acting, he could devour whole scenery, rather than just chew on it.

  • 18 Philip MertzNo Gravatar // Feb 12, 2011 at 10:15 am

    When I first discovered that you could transfer VHS onto DVDs this is the first movie I tried it with. I love it. I have the original, huge, orange and black clamshell box from when it was first released on video. I bought it right off the rental shelf from my favorite video store when I was about 16. The store has been closed now for about 12 or 13 years. Make me wanna go out on another Mom & Pop video store excursion to find and try to buy more old original VHS gems. The bigger the box the better!!!

  • 19 Philip MertzNo Gravatar // Feb 12, 2011 at 10:25 am

    Also Bud Davis, the killer, was scheduled to attend a horror movie convention years ago that I went to and brought my box to have him sign. I don’t think he ever showed because I kept checking his booth and there was no sign that he was actually there even though there was a place card with his name on it. The cast of Saw were the main attraction of the event, but I was more excited to possibly get my TTTDS box signed by the killer.

  • 20 TomNo Gravatar // Feb 12, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    We actually drove through Texarkana in 1976 on a family vacation to San Antonio, Texas. It was after dark and I was convinced we were all going to die (c’mon, I was only 9). I hid on the floor of our 1971 Chevy Impala.

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