Monday, March 23, 2015

The Town That Dreaded Sundown!

1977's The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a prototype slasher movie which pre-dates Halloween and also lays claim to be based on true events. As it turns out (no surprise) that claim is somewhat suspect, but who really believes that palaver anyway in post-Kardashian America. This movie is another directorial effort by the guy who brought us The Legend of Boggy Creek a few years earlier.

The story is in fact based on a real crime spree during the late winter and early spring of 1946 dubbed the "Texarcana Moonlight Murders". Couples were attacked and in many instances sadistically killed while spooning in sundry lovers lanes around the area and later an attack is made on a local home. The killer was dubbed "The Phantom Killer" and he was never captured nor identified.

The movie sets up a similar scenario, but is limited early on and later with the casting of amateurs in not only bit parts but key roles. Andrew Prine plays a deputy sheriff who comes close to capturing the killer early on, but he appears in some scenes to be the only professional on set. Later he is joined by Ben Johnson who plays a version of real-life Texas Ranger M.T. "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas. The pair move the flick along briskly when they are together, but again whole affair is shackled by amateurism in key sequences. Later Dawn Wells appears as one of the victims, but that's about it for name talent for this movie.

The Phantom Killer is though reasonably scary and made more so because the movie smartly doesn't allow much if any speculation about his identity and we are left with an enigmatic sadist who seems to derive weird excitement from stabbing, shooting, and gnawing his victims. We always wears a gunny sack over his head evoking a dreaded reminder of the Klan and also making it seem bizarre as his quickened breathing makes the sack quiver. The actor (Bud Davis) and the director get an amazing amount of expression from a guy with a bag on his head, to their credit.

One thing about this low-budget affair produced and directed by Charles B. Pierce, is that Pierce himself plays the character A.C. "Sparkplug" Benson, a hapless cop who adds amazingly inappropriate comedy relief to a movie which desperately does not require it. The decision to add lighter scenes baffles me, as any tension built up in very detailed murder sequences which do have a sense of dread to them is demolished by this character who does inane things accompanied by a soundtrack which diddle along with him.

In the final analysis The Town That Dreaded Sundown is not nearly as compelling as it ought to be, but memorable it truly is.

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