Monday, October 6, 2014

October Horror Movie Challenge: The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

Directed by Charles B. Pierce, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is an independent horror film loosely based on the actual crimes committed by an unidentified "Phantom Killer" that terrorized Texarkana in 1946. After a number of people are attacked on the outskirts of the city by a mysterious man wearing a make-shift mask, Texas Ranger J.D. Morales leads an extensive manhunt for the culprit.

On the surface, The Town That Dreaded Sundown looks like another proto-slasher (much like the earlier Texas Chainsaw Massacre). However, the film possesses an intriguing style that makes it unique (at least, for its time). The Town That Dreaded Sundown, at times, feels like an America's Most Wanted reeanctment stretched out into a feature length film. It even has a narration that acts as a bridge from one major even to the next. This could have been disastrous, but Pierce manages to take this admittedly odd style and make it work to the film's benefit.

This weird style helps build a specific kind of atmosphere for the film, making the scenes with the Phantom Killer much more believable. While there are some outlandish elements, I couldn't help but feel like I was watching something that actually happened instead of a scene loosely based on actual events. Each death felt brutal, especially when the score vanishes and we're left with the killer's heavy breathing and the sound of victim's pleading for their lives. Its extremely effective and very well-done in that regard.

The acting is also pretty solid. Ben Johnson is wonderful as J.D. Morales (who's based on the real Texas Ranger M. T. Gonzaullas). He plays the character with a calm confidence, making you believe this is a character who will do whatever he can to bring this psychopath to justice. Bud Davis also kills it as the Phantom Killer, possessing a menacing aura and expresses a lot of character through just the movement of his eyes and his breathing.

With that being said, The Town That Dreaded Sundown does have some major problems that keep it from being great. At times, the film can be a little uneven, with certain scenes going on much longer than they really  need to. Also, some of the scenes with the copes feel like something out of an early 70s police procedural. I half expected to hear the Dragnet theme at times.

Although its by no means perfect, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is an interesting relic of its time and has an intriguing style. I can see why many consider this to be a cult classic, and I believe it deserves that status. If you're interested in seeing a proto-slasher film with an interesting style, I'd say give The Town That Dreaded Sundown a chance.