Night #4: The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

I hadn’t intended to watch this originally, but one of the pleasures of browsing Netflix is where you stumble across this previously hard to find movie that was lumped in with the slasher genre, even though it preceded it by a good few years.

Based upon the true story of The Moonlight Murders, a spree of killings that haunted the town of Texarcana, Texas, The Town That Dreaded Sundown strings them together in some sort of loose narrative. The opening narration promises that “Only the names have been changed“. That’s largely untrue and a lot of ‘facts’ about the case have come as a result of stuff they made up for the movie, but the end result ends up being a sort of precursor to David Fincher’s ZodiacDirected by Charles Pierce (Who also has a supporting role in the movie as the comic relief), TTTDS – I can’t keep typing it out – is a loose retelling of those attacks that plagued Texarcana. Interestingly, it doesn’t open with a double-killing – even though the set up tells you it should – in it, a couple park up in a secluded spot. He wants to do something that she doesn’t, but before anything can happen they’re attacked by a masked man. He breaks in the window, dragging and beating the man, while he rapes and attacks the woman. It’s a stark, violent opening, even though very little is shown. The details are filled in afterwards, with it being revealed that the woman was bitten all over.

It’s 21 days later when the killer actually makes his first kill, and when the Texas Rangers are called in to help catch what has now been dubbed ‘The Phantom’. Hijinxs ensue.

That’s actually not too far from the truth. The movie has a strange tone to it, perhaps to cover up for the low budget. There’s a lot of comedy segments and jaunty music as the town tries to deal with the fact that there’s a masked attacker among them and it can seem a little askew now that we’ve been subjected to expect a serious tone at all times. It’s the type of thing they could only really get away with in 70s, or is used these days as a ‘trick’ on the audience. It’s a testament to Pierce that he just about manages to pull this off, even if some of the comedy is overdone.

The other thing that sticks out the most, and what could be the biggest hurdle for most viewers, is that Pierce employs a narrator to continuously set the scene. He does it at the start to set the scene and establish what kind of town Texarcana is, and then later on again to tell us about two characters who are about to be killed. It’s a strange approach to take that’s used to provide an air of legitimacy to the proceedings, like we’re watching the visualisation of a book that has occasional interjections from the author. Some have accused it of stealing the device from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre which was released two years previously, but Pierce used a similar technique (He staged ‘Real life interviews’) for his own The Legend Of Boggy Creek which was released in 1972.

The other thing Pierce did is employ locals in a lot of roles, which comes with the problems you’d expect. Some of the dialogue is a little wooden to begin with, and when it’s placed in the hands of non-actors then it tends to sound even worse. I appreciate the stab at authenticity, and the fact that it keeps costs low, but it simply doesn’t work.

What Pierce does manage to do is to keep the kill scenes tense. There’s a protracted scene in which two lovers are killed after attending a High School dance that is incredibly tense. They were musicians, and at one point the killer stops to play with a trombone. It’s a small, odd, detail that’s effective at making this more than just a simple killer.

To that end there’s no supernatural elements here, just a heavy breathing guy who gets lucky or more than one occasion and a police force who are continually playing catch up, despite their best efforts. It’s only when the town essentially doesn’t go out during the night that he attempts a home invasion, marking his final kill. The town aspect is one that Pierce also leans on, keen to remind us that when the kills started the gun stores immediately sold out of guns and that people imposed a curfew on themselves, giving the town an empty feel. It’s an aspect I would’ve liked to have seen more of, instead of another scene of ‘comic’ relief.

Previously unavailable for years, except for the occasional, high priced, video release – seriously the first version I ever saw was a VHS bootleg copied to a CD – it’s now had a stunning widescreen transfer and is well worth seeking out, just in time for the remake.

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