31 Days of Horror: Film 25: The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

It’s time for the 31 Days of Horror: 2014 Edition. For those of you who weren’t around for last year’s journey, the plan is to watch at least 31 horror movies I’ve never seen before and review them all. So sit back, strap in, and enjoy my journey down the rabbit hole.

The largely positive reputation of The Town That Dreaded Sundown baffles me. Going into the film, I knew that it was supposedly based on true events, but I was under the impression that the film itself was more about the culture of fear and paranoia that went through the town of Texarkana, Arkansas as a serial killer stalked and murdered its residents. Instead, it’s simply a docudrama that dryly recounts the facts, punctuated with moments of truly awful comedy and abuse of an omniscient voiceover.

In 1946, Texarkana falls prey to a series of murders committed by a man wearing a white hood over his face. Quickly dubbed “the Phantom” by the local police and the press, he is a source of terror for a bustling community looking for a return to normalcy in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Unable to catch the killer, the local police force turns to Captain J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson), a legendary investigator for the Texas Rangers.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is your movie. Oh sure, there are moments when the film strikes a nerve. Most of these are courtesy of the recreations of the murders. These sequences are presented in a cold, matter-of-fact manner that made me wonder if the style informed David Fincher’s handling of the killings in Zodiac. The Phantom’s assault on a farmhouse is a striking bit of visual horror in a movie that is largely content to recount facts without using them to tell a story worth telling.

Director Charles B. Pierce (who also plays a buffoonish police officer as painful comic relief) doesn’t seem to have a handle on the story he wants to tell. It feels like he wants to turn the true-life tale into a story about a turning point in America when small-town people could no longer feel safe leaving their doors unlocked. The problem with that approach is two-fold. First, by the time The Town That Dreaded Sundown was made, this ground had already been covered by the superior In Cold Blood. Second, Pierce largely abandons this conceit in favor of alternating between the ugly, mostly realistic murder scenes and stiffly acted police procedural scenes.

The main problem with the film is that the police procedural half of it feels like wheel-spinning. Johnson was a very good actor and he brings some gravitas to his role, playing Morales as an intelligent, forward-thinking investigator. But Pierce surrounds him with stereotypical dunces and/or boring authority figures to act as exposition machines. The investigation feels half-assed because Pierce stages these scenes in a stilted manner that recalls the worst of ‘70s police procedural TV shows.

But the main sin committed by Pierce and screenwriter Earl E. Smith is to have a narrator (Vern Stierman) explain EVERYTHING that is happening onscreen. Never is the audience allowed to infer what a character might be thinking with a look or action that could be read in different ways. Pierce wants the audience to know that there is only way to interpret the film and he’s determined to get that across, even if he has to have a God-like voice explain it. It’s a maddening choice that counteracts any tension or suspense built up by the scenes of the Phantom coldly going about his business.

Pierce does show some guts by staying true to real-life events with the film’s ending. I can only imagine the angered reactions of audiences to the film’s quite good final shot. But while the last few minutes of the film build to a nicely suspenseful ending, I can’t ignore the previous 80 minutes where The Town That Dreaded Sundown was a dull, annoying mess.

You can contact me at obsessivemovienerd@gmail.com and read all the extraneous crap that goes through my head by following me on Twitter.

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