Saturday, January 21, 2012

27. THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (1976)

A peculiar example of the true crime film, this Samuel Z. Arkoff presentation -- a surprise box office hit in its day -- was shot on location in the cities of Texarkana, Texas and Arkansas, and documents a series of unsolved attacks and murders which took place there in 1946.

What makes it peculiar is that the horrific and suspenseful scenes are staged and filmed fairly effectively but, for some inane reason, director Charles B. Pierce (THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK) chose to depict the scenes of the police investigation (headed by Ben Johnson as a fictitious Texas Ranger, and Andrew Prine as a local deputy) in largely comic fashion, a misstep epitomized by the preposterous amount of time he spends milking his own supporting role as a patrolman (nicknamed "Sparkplug") for laffs.

Flying in the face of its labored comedy, the film is schizophrenically framed with sobriety, being underscored by earnest narration (so earnest that the film has the absurd reputation in some quarters for being a "semi-documentary") and with each murder preceded by an historic date which grimly fills the screen like a portent that something bad is going to happen. (The titles employ the same old-fashioned font used by New World's BIG BAD MAMA, another rollicking rural crime picture made around the same time.) A blog exists where the interested can read the true details concerning this reign of terror, which were changed in this telling (along with the names of the victims) by screenwriter Earl E. Smith (who plays the role of Dr. Kress, a consulted psychologist) to eliminate the rape aspect common to the actual crimes. In a scene that was doubtless conceived to generate word-of-mouth (that, or just plain incredulity), Smith was inspired to have the Phantom Killer claim one of his victims -- a member of the local high school band -- with her own trombone, cruelly customized with a pocket knife. (Though one of the murder victims was a band member, she was a saxophonist and her instrument played no role in her demise.) GILLIGAN'S ISLAND's Dawn Wells has a small but prominently billed role as the Phantom's final victim, whose attack represents a startling shift in his modus operandi from Lovers' Lane parked car attacks to actual home invasions.

To see the film now, it becomes obvious that the sack-hooded Phantom Killer (played by Bud Davis, whom we never see unmasked) is the real antecedent for the Jason character in the FRIDAY THE 13TH sequels, though they had their roots as creative body count pictures in Mario Bava's BAY OF BLOOD. Like Jason, the Phantom Killer never dies, he just fades into the wilderness where he endures to this day in the repeated whispers of urban legends. In the film's most amusing and sardonic twist, Pierce ends the picture by showing the Phantom's shoes standing outside a theater in a queue to see THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, thereby accusing his own paying audience of harboring the murderer.

Viewed on Turner Classic Movies.

1 comment:

  1. Good review, Tim. Just watched it again myself, and was struck by how Arkoff and Pierce tried to shoehorn so many different styles into one film. There are elements of the slasher, police procedural, rural redneck comedy, and 'fast car' genres in The Town That Dreaded Sundown. The combination doesn't really work, unfortunately, but the decision to shoot on location was a wise choice...as time seemed to have advanced very little in that part of the country. For a low-budget film shot in 1976, there are very few anachronistic haircuts and clothes!

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