THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (1976)
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The Town That Dreaded Sundown is considered a classic and has a reputation but, personally, I don’t get it. Maybe it’s that I finally have caught up with it now and not back in the day when it made it’s impact but, I found the film dull and even silly at times.
The film takes place in 1946 Texarkana, Arkansas and is based on a real series of murders (check out Killer Legends for the scoop on the real case) that happened in that year and area by an individual that was dubbed “The Phantom Killer”. This horror flick dramatizes the events with a pseudo-documentary format, complete with monotone narration, as this small town becomes immobilized with fear as a masked killer stalks the night. In the actual case, the killer was never caught and his activities ceased as mysteriously as they began. The film version follows the small town’s Deputy (Andrew Prine) as he teams with a notorious Texas Ranger (Ben Johnson) to try and catch this madman.
Charles B Pierce (Legend Of Boggy Creek) directs Earl E. Smith’s script with a very slow pace, which would be alright if it wasn’t also given such a deadpan tone. The documentary-like structure robs the film of any real intensity or atmosphere as it comes off like one of those old fashioned school warning films that you can watch on Youtube. The only time the film livens up is for some really obtrusive comic relief sequences surrounding a bumbling deputy nicknamed “Sparkplug” (ironically played by director Pierce). These sequences stick out like a sore thumb, though and the silly slapstick completely undermines the dreadfully serious tone of the rest of the film. They almost seem like they are from a completely different movie and really have no place in a flick that is trying to present a series of horrific events that should be taken seriously. The killings are disturbing and bloody but, nothing that really had impact enough to really grab me, though that can be forgiven as they are based on fact. For the most part I was bored and very disappointed but, not being a big fan of Pierce’s Boggy Creek either… which suffered from the same problems… it wasn’t all that much of a surprise. Maybe in the 70s this was considered a disturbing flick but, now it’s tame, dull and, at it’s worst points, very silly. With a chilling real series of events to base this on, it’s sad how little this film captures the horror of what actually happened and fails to really bring to life the fear with which it gripped a small town community.
The cast, which also includes Gilligan’s Island’s Dawn Wells, all perform with the same monotone as the film’s narration by Vern Stierman. Prine and Johnson are veteran actors but, here they seem like they are just going through the motions with Johnson giving a bit of arrogance and pompousness to his Texas Ranger but, far from his usual rich character work. The only actor who shows some life is, unfortunately Pierce whose comic bits mimic Barney Fife from The Andy Griffith Show. Wells plays one of the killers victims who survives and as most of her role is screaming and crying, she’s fine. A decent cast but, sadly without the guidance of a more sure-handed director.
So basically, I found little to like about this crime/horror thriller and it’s reputation is a mystery to me. It’s slow moving, has little atmosphere and what little effect the murder sequences have, is eradicated by shamelessly slapstick comic relief performed by the director himself. It’s sad that a film based on actual events that are chilling on their own, couldn’t make effective use of a plot that is already written in real history. Watch the documentary Killer Legends for a far more effective segment on the actually events that inspired this ‘classic’ film. There is currently a remake… that sounds more like a sequel… in release that sounds like it could be a lot better or at least a far more entertaining film.
2 (out of 4) phantom killers.