Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1977)

I first heard of this 1977 Samuel Z. Arkoff presented slasher flick by way of a newspaper ad from that year, which I found preserved in the trunk of a junked car in the woods. The painting of a bag-masked killer looking down on a town at night piqued my interest: what was this movie and why hadn't I heard of it before? I made it my mission to track down a copy, fully aware that it might turn out to be terrible. Finally, I got my hands on a VHS edition at London, Ontario's Shock Stock Convention. And you know what? It 'aint half bad.

The Town that Dreaded Sundown is a police procedural about a slasher who terrorized a Texarkana town in 1946. The film does a good job of contextualizing its story in the time and place and detailing how the killer's reign of terror drove residents to the gun shops and locksmiths. The police deputy Norman Ramsey (played by Andrew Prine) leads the operation with help from Captain J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson), the "most famous ranger in the history of Texas". Ultimately, however, it's an unsolved crime, which means we never find out who did it or why and he could still be out there!

The film suffers a bit from a problem common to most crime docudramas: we find out what the characters did to solve the crime, but almost nothing about who they were. Johnson in particular is great as always, but he doesn't have much to do aside from riding around in cars chasing people. Since this is a 70s drive-in flick, there is a superfluous car chase scene with a car flying through the air and landing in a lake. There is also unfunny comic relief provided by the rookie cop 'Sparkplug'. Oh, that Sparkplug!

Nevertheless, the scenes with the killer are effective. I liked that the teen boy killed in the opening scene was named "Sammy Fuller" in reference to one of the great B-movie directors. Also, the killer's tendency to tie up women and bite them all over if pretty creepy. There's a particularly unique scene in which he kills a woman via knife-rigged slide trombone. And horror fans who have ever watched Gilligan's Island and asked themselves, "Who would you rather see stalked: Ginger or Mary Ann?" can see Dawn Wells (Mary Ann) flee in terror during a home invasion scene. Finally, the fact that the killer is never caught is frustrating and unnerving, and probably true-to-life.

Somebody should give The Town that Dreaded Sundown a better DVD release. It's not a lost classic; but it is an example of solid, never showy filmmaking of a kind that we seldom see anymore.

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