TOMB OF NOSTALGIA: THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (1976)

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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.

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TOMB OF NOSTALGIA: THE EVIL (1978)

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THE EVIL (1978)

This 1978 haunted house flick, released by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, spooked me quite a bit as a kid. And upon a recent revisit, I still found it to be a fun, nostalgic good time, but obviously for different reasons. It may be tame and kind of silly by today’s standards, but as 70s B-movie horror entertainment, it’s delightfully effective. The film opens with drunk caretaker Sam (Ed Bakey) grumbling about having to clean up the large old house he now enters. He hears children laughing once inside and follows the sounds into the basement to the cold, dead furnace…which promptly blazes to life and sets him on fire. Creepy old house now has our attention! We soon find the large old house is being renovated by psychologist, C.J. Arnold (Richard Crenna) as a clinic, along with his doctor wife Caroline (Joanna Pettet). They are getting help from volunteers and friends who are going to work and live there over the summer till it is ready to open. Despite some spooky occurrences during the walk-through and local tales that the house and grounds are haunted, they move in anyway and begin work. And as soon as they do, the weirdness begins such as apparitions, strange noises, moving objects and a seemingly friendly pet dog who turns vicious. As a man of science, C.J. refuses to believe there is anything supernatural going on, even when his wife finds a diary that warns of an ancient doorway to evil within the house, that has been sealed and must never be opened. So, of course, when C.J. finds a stone door in the cellar floor sealed by a cross…he removes the cross and opens it. To say all hell breaks loose is far more appropriate than you think, as now the house is sealed by some horrible force and the trapped guests are being tormented and murdered one by one in gruesome ways. Will they find a way to escape with their lives?…and their souls?

Written and directed by Gus Trikonis (Moonshine County Express), The Evil has everything you could want from a 70s B-Movie haunted house flick. There’s cheesy apparitions with dire warnings, levitations, diabolical echoing laughter, an endless thunderstorm, possessions, horrible deaths and even a showdown with Old Scratch (Victor Buono) himself. What more could you want to go along with a six pack of your favorite poison on a Saturday night?  Trikonis’ style is pretty straightforward and he takes his material seriously, but he is definitely having fun with his supernatural story, as it’s elements are presented with just the right touch of theatricality and flair. The cheesy dialog and simple FX work all the better because, it is presented sincerely and not made a joke of. It’s not the intense, visceral horror of today’s standards…though there are some violent moments that are still effective…but the film has it’s devious heart in the right place and I appreciate the daring of having our atheist hero actually come face to face with the Prince Of Darkness himself for a James Bond-ish hero vs. villain Tête-à-Tête at the film’s climax. It works better then you think, especially due to some witty dialog and Buono’s malice drenched performance that goes just over-the-top enough without becoming camp.

The rest of the cast take their parts seriously, too, with Crenna giving us a man of science who is resisting the notion that the supernatural things he’s disbelieved all his life may be far too real. And to survive, he may have to turn to the God, whose existence he has always denied. Pettet gives us a solid heroine in his wife and as she’s a doctor, too, she is strong-willed and a fighter, though far more receptive to what she is experiencing than her husband. The supporting cast, including 70s mainstays Andrew Prine and Cassie Yates, all do well in creating likable people out of characters who all face possible doom in the grasp of an ancient evil right out of a bedtime story. It’s treating the material with respect and playing it straight by cast and crew that makes this film so much fun. If it were played for laughs, then we as the audience would appreciate it much less. Our entertainment comes from the fact that it’s all being presented to us in a serious manner, whether it be the house’s former tenant possessing Caroline right before C.J.’s eyes, or his arguing there must be a scientific explanation for a house filled with diabolical laughter locking you and your friends inside. Sure doc…it’s the humidity.

It all comes down to a really entertaining 70s B-Movie horror that, while it may not be perfect and may not scare like it did back in it’s day, still thoroughly entertains for much different reasons and that, is still entertainment after all. A flick made unintentionally campy by the passage of time, but still not without some very effective moments. A prime example of fun, nostalgic 70s B-Movie horror!

Rated 3 (out of 4) delightfully devilish Buonos.

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TOMB OF NOSTALGIA: GRIZZLY (1976)

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GRIZZLY (1976)

Grizzly is a 1976 Jaws rip-off that tells the horrifying tale of a massive 15 foot (the ads for the film say 18, but in the movie it is said to be 15) grizzly bear, who has wandered hungrily into a state park and begins snacking down on the campers and rangers alike. Chief Ranger Mike Kelly (Christopher George) has his hands full as he, Naturalist Arthur Scott (Richard Jaeckel) and war vet chopper pilot Don Stober (Andrew Prine) have to somehow stop the relentless carnivore.

Grizzly follows the template created by Spielberg’s thriller quite closely with our three leads being the Brody, Hooper and Quint characters who are hunting a vicious, yet seemingly very intelligent predator, while it racks up quite the body count of innocent victims. We get the greedy head of the park refusing to close the place down despite the deaths and bringing in a bunch of amateur yahoos to hunt the bear down. But despite the blatant similarities, Grizzly actually works on a B-movie level. As directed by William Girdler (Abby, The Manitou), Grizzly is actually an effective and surprisingly gory PG horror flick. While it never matches the tension of the movie it was clearly inspired by, it does entertain in more of a low budget slasher flick kind of way, with the rampaging bear filling in for Jason or Michael Myers. For a 2000 lb. animal, it sneaks up on people quite easily. There is never much attempt to explain why the animal is so big, or why it has come to this park to feed, except for a quick throw-away line suggesting it might be a throw-back to it’s prehistoric ancestors. But like with the shark in Jaws, the grizzly is effectively portrayed and it’s background is unimportant to the carnage it creates. A live bear was used in filming and the 11 foot “Teddy” is quite effective in the part along with a prop arm for up-close mauling. It is said that the crew coaxed the bear into it’s roaring stance by offering it marshmallows, adding the roar in post production. Works for me!

Sure there is some silly dialog and all the acting is not top notch, but the leads are veteran actors and give the material the respect it needs to work and their characters are all pretty likable. This, along with some effectively gory kills and a nice fast pace by director Girdler, turns this low budget rip-off into an entertaining B-movie that works well enough on it’s own. Made for a reported $750,000, Grizzly grossed almost $40 million. Not bad for a Jaws imitation that, when you add the 70s nostalgia factor, is actually a fun Saturday night B-movie horror thriller despite it’s rip-off roots.

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Couldn’t find a good trailer but did find the opening attack scene… in fact, you can watch the whole movie on Youtube as it appears to be public domain now… WARNING: SCENE IS GRAPHIC!

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