The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)
It was many moons ago, during those early years of pay cable television, when they didn’t have enough programming to fill the 24 hours and weekday afternoons were all day long loops of trailers for the films that would be on later that night. Along with the shocking one for Airport ‘75 (with the little passenger plane colliding with the big Boeing and the co-pilot getting sucked right out), the other trailer that made an indelible impact on my impressionable mind was the terrifying one for The Town that Dreaded Sundown, based on a true story (and it apparently really was, with the film’s narration staying fairly close to the events). Of course, most of us in those — dare I use the cliché — more innocent times (at least as far as both the quantity and level of explicitness on display before us) were far more susceptible (and appreciative) of shocking imagery then… and that image of a hooded figure smashing through a door in slow motion, pointing a gun directly at us and shooting, was something I couldn’t shake… and still remember keenly to this day. So, it was with high anticipation, that I finally pulled the Scream Factory blu ray off the shelf and threw it into the machine for a view.
First, the transfer is great. The movie looks gorgeous, beautifully and evocatively capturing a feeling of Texarkana in the ‘40’s (where the lovers’ lane attacks occurred, a city that is located half in Texas and half in Arkansas) — from the décor and costumes, to the cars and the performances (with perfect southern drawls from both Andrew Prine and great Western character actor Ben Johnson) — it’s really impressive. Minus some awkward obvious locals in bit parts and, much worse, a clumsy attempt at bumbling comedy-relief played by the director Charles Pierce himself, who is downright awful (why, oh, why, did you do it, Charles?), the film manages to transport us into an entirely believable world.
There is a very effective matter-of-fact brutality to the scenes of the mysterious hooded figure having his murderous way with the lovers’ lane couples he terrorizes and the girls’ screams are really unnerving, as is the I guess by-now-overused-but-still-well-done-here heavy breathing under the hood of the attacker. (SPOILER ALERT the rest of the way) The scene where the actress who played Marie Anne on Gilligan’s Island is attacked (and shot in the face, as apparently the real woman was, and survived), with her husband shot and killed through the window of their home, is particularly well executed in a harrowing manner.
And yet… it’s quite odd and unsatisfying how the manhunt for the killer, led by a real life Texas Ranger superstar played by that legendary director Sam Peckinpah favorite Johnson, gathers nary a clue and, after a single chase (with the phantom killer actually wearing his hood in the middle of the day! Not much for blending into a crowd apparently… I mean, how was this guy never caught?), the maniac simply disappears without a trace, with no indications ever of who he was, or any scene with him being anything else but the ‘stalker’ with the hood on (with, as someone pointed out to me, the later pre-hockey mask, sack-over-his-head Jason in Friday the 13th Part 2 bearing a suspicious resemblance).
As our narrator intones how the hooded killer was never found (and, of course, how he still might still be out there), it dawned on me that the film, as evocative, unsettling and well done as it is, might have been better served had it veered off from the faithful telling of a true story into something with a bit more exciting of a narrative conclusion.