The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976)
Dir. Charles B. Pierce
Written by Earl E. Smith
Starring Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Dawn Wells, Charles B. Pierce
No getting around it, THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (1976) is a strange film. It’s part true-crime docu-drama (complete with grim-voiced narration), part legit white-knuckle slasher, part goofy comedy, part affectionate travelogue of its Texarkana* locale. It’s an odd beast, but it’s exactly what you’d want from director Charles B. Pierce, who spent the 70’s as an indie genre auteur long before that kind of thing had a name --let alone a business plan-- grinding out southern-fried ultra-low-budget DIY films which seamlessly blend charming amateurishness with some indisputable genre thrills, and many of which managed to actually end up a bit ahead of their time. He’s most known for his first film, the 1972 bigfootsploitation fauxumentary THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, but by TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN he was already four years and four movies into his directorial career, and still finding time to work as a set dresser for stuff like COFFY and BLACK BELT JONES in his downtime. Does this guy need a congressional medal of valor or what?
TTtDS mimics the format of BOGGY CREEK, with its quasi-documentary structure complete with narration and references to specific dates and crimes (apparently with near-zero accuracy), but is also slightly more assured and intermittently competent. It’s certainly a strange film, but it wouldn’t, for example, pause for minutes on end while an off-screen voice sings a laid-back folk song, like BOGGY CREEK does. It’s a little more normal than that. Basically, it’s a ZODIAC (2007)-style chronicle of a series of slayings which occurred in and around Texarkana in 1946 (colorfully dubbed “the Texarkana Moonlight murders”), with a plot loosely tied together by the efforts of the law enforcement officers trying (and failing**) to crack the case. It doesn’t exactly have a traditional narrative, it’s more like a series of vignettes related to the case, though gradually some story shape takes form around the out-of-towner police captain J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson) loosely based on the real-life M. T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzuallas.
Let’s pause and take a second to consider just how god damn great Ben Johnson is. Here’s this guy, the son of a rancher, who arrived in Hollywood because he was delivering a carload of horses to Howard Hughes for THE OUTLAW (1943). While in the area, he took a few stunt jobs here and there in between horse gigs before heroically saving three men in a runaway wagon during a unexpected horse stampede on the set of John Ford’s 1948 FORT APACHE. Ford said he wanted to reward Johnson for his actions, which Johnson thought might mean another job as a riding double or an extra -- instead, he gave him a seven-year acting contract (Johnson signed it immediately after reading up to line 5, where the words “$5,000 a week” appeared). He went on to appear in a ton of classics, including SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, RIO GRANDE, SHANE, HANG ‘EM HIGH, THE WILD BUNCH, and THE GETAWAY, and even won a god damn Academy Award for THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. Did he let success change him? Fuck no, he stuck to what he knew, kept himself humble, and was apparently not above appearing in zero-budget way-outside-hollywood THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN a few short years after his Oscar win. But it’s not just that he had an interesting and successful film career that makes him great; it’s that he brought such a strong sense of authenticity to his roles. I mean, this is not some John Wayne frat boy phony cowboy movie star; this is the guy they brought in because he actually knew how to do real-life badass things, not just pretend to do them in the movies. He lived a real life, had real experiences, instead of just acting like he could. And you can see it on his face every minute he’s on the screen; there’s a calm confidence and (dare I say?) true grit that just radiates from those sharp eyes. Here, he doesn’t always give the most convincing line readings in the world (not that the lines themselves are exactly convincing), but he is absolutely convincingly grizzled, and that matters a whole lot more. Words are important, but you can’t fake this kind of gravitas. They don’t really make ‘em like that anymore, so every movie you get to see with Johnson in it feels like a nostalgic look into a bygone era.
Speaking of bygone eras, one reason Johnson fits right in here is because the movie has a surprisingly strong sense of time and place. It’s possible that by 1976 Arkansas still looked pretty much the same as it did in 1946, but whatever the reason, even with its strange structure and low budget the movie has an authentic feel of the 40’s, which makes it pretty unusual for a slasher pic. Is there any other slasher movie set so far back in history? I guess the millions of Jack the Ripper movies, but those are almost a genre unto themselves. Seems like Slashers are almost exclusively a modern phenomenon, so setting one in this era has a distinctly different feel to it. The cops don’t really know what to do, they don’t know how to act when there’s something crazy like this.
The movie doesn’t exactly know how to act either, because it preceded the Modern American Slasher Period a bit. I mean, there had been a few stabs (heh) in that direction -- SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT in 1973, BLACK CHRISTMAS in 1974, and of course PSYCHO and a bunch of giallos before that-- but HALLOWEEN, the one which really started the American Slasher wave and established its rules, was still two years off. Left without much to model itself on, TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN finds itself without the usual rules and tropes, exploring new territory. Pierce seems to have a natural feel for the kill scenes, which are startlingly effective and seedy, complete with invented gimmick kills (one particularly inspired touch finds the killer murdering a band student by strapping a knife to her trombone and using its slide to stab her) and lurid (though not explicit) sexual suggestion. He struggles with the plot a little, however, mistakenly focusing on the police investigation, which is by definition in this genre going to be ineffective and the least satisfying story thread. Later slashers would mostly dump the law enforcement angle in favor of the “final girl” model, which suits the material a lot better. Fortunately you got Johnson in there, and he’s nicely assisted by Andrew Prine (THE LORDS OF SALEM) as a competent but overwhelmed local cop and Pierce himself as a (for my money) pretty funny deputy named “Sparkplug.” So even if they don’t have the best story, they’re enjoyable to watch. Oh, and Dawn Wells (“Mary Ann” from Gilligan’s Island), is one of the victims, so if you ever wanted to see her terrorized by a sadistic masked killer, I bet this is your only chance. Although to be fair I haven’t seen every episode of Gilligan’s Island, maybe one of those has a masked killer too.
The sequences with the killer are really intense, particularly since whoever’s behind that mask has a frightening physicality; he’s not a supernatural boogyman, and his victims aren’t always totally helpless, leading the murders to be prolonged, messy affairs highlighted by the hooded phantom’s perverse heavy breathing under his burlap mask. It’s a real person under there, not some mythological figure -- but who he is and what he thinks he’s doing, we’ll never know, making him all the more frightening. There's such a bizarre, incomprehensible sadism to this guy that it's hard not to feel genuinely unnerved. These scenes sit a bit uneasily with the other subplots, of course. A lot of reviewers have complained about the occasional goofy humor and inconsistent tone, and technically, they have a point. But I don’t know, for me it kind of adds both to the charm and to the horror. It’s charming because it highlights the homemade, DIY vibe here; even in 1976, no studio would ever let you get away with something like that, but Pierce thought it would be a good idea and he went with it. It helps with the horror too, though, by juxtaposing such repugnant brutality with wacky hijinks and broad mugging, resulting in something kind of grotesque and shocking, like if an episode of TAXI had a series of tangentially related scenes with the Son of Sam brutally murdering people, peppered throughout a normal sitcom plot. It’s an extremely odd balance, though, and I don’t blame some people for thinking that the movie would be better if it was as consistently serious and unnerving as the scenes with the killer manage to be. Fortunately by the movie’s climactic scene, the various plots and tones somehow manage to kind of, if not exactly meld, at least braid together for a seriously exciting chase scene between the cops and the killer. The final, ambiguous ending is perfect, though the “Captain Morales went on to…” intertitle text that follows it is perhaps unnecessary, since, uh, none of these characters are actually real people.
TTtDS is mostly remembered today for what it predicted: the iconic image of the bag-headed serial killer which would return in FRIDAY THE 13th PART II, the gimmicky killer, the rise of the true-life-serial-killer fad which is still going strong today, the idea of epilogue text describing what happened to fictional characters in a movie based on a true story (which Michael Bay revived for his nightmarish but semi-watchable PAIN AND GAIN), the cottage industry of non-Hollywood local indie film artisans that it inspired. But the charm to me is what it is: a true American original by a guy who decided to just up and try and make movies his own way, on his own terms. Pierce would make a few more movies (including the excellent and underseen THE EVICTORS with Michael Parks) but never quite broke into the mainstream again. His legacy, though, is a whole generation of young indie auteurs for whom he blazed a trail, who are even now making their own ill-advised, ungainly, amateurish, but authentically personal films about serial killers and bigfoots and whatnot. In fact, this very year a kind of meta-sequel remake of TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN was produced, with actor Denis O’Hare (21 GRAMS, MILK, DALLAS BUYER’S CLUB) portraying Pierce himself.*** Evidence enough of the enduring legend of one of indie cinema’s great originals.
*Man, that CCR song about the cotton fields really left out the whole part about the psycho slasher with a trombone fetish. Maybe the song was running long or something?
**Not a spoiler, the poster informs us that the killer “still lurks the streets of Texarkana, Ark,” apparently to the consternation of the local government there, who asked Pierce to remove the tagline.
***Edit: actually he's playing Pierce's fictional son, although another actor does portray Pierce himself in a brief flashback.
|I enjoyed it, your mileage may vary depending upon how much you can stand weird comedy juxtaposed with brutal violence. Basically, the TUSK ratio test.|