A lot of people see The Town That Dreaded Sundown as a missed opportunity, where its truly bizarre mix of quasi-documentary police procedural film, sadistic brutality, cheesy slapstick, and hokey dialogue, somehow lesson the results. Yet this couldn’t be further from the truth. If anything all of the above elevates the film and is the reason we’re still talking about this fascinating 1976 American horror film today. It’s that strange.
It is based (apparently quite loosely) on real unsolved murders in Texarkana Texas in 1946, by a sadistic killer dubbed “the phantom killer”, who wore a white mask and terrorised teenagers in lovers lane.
The murders are filmed with a nihilistic brutality, the intensity heightened by the fact that you can never see the killers face and he never utters a word. It’s quite sadistic and graphic, as victims are tied to trees and shot in the head, dragged through broken car windows, beaten with a club and in one particularly gruesome scene stabbed with a knife tied to a trombone which the killer plays as he stabs his victim.
The police element is fascinating veering from the mundane to the slapstick. It feels totally unnecessary, and in fact detracts from the tone set by the grimness of the murders. The director himself, Charles B. Pierce, plays a ridiculously bumbling police officer who’s only purpose appears to be adding comic relief by misplacing his car keys, driving his car into a lake during a pursuit, or dressing in drag to be a decoy for the killer. The shenanigans that occur in squad room belong in a whole other film. It’s hard to know what Pierce was thinking. Perhaps he wanted to balance up the darker elements of the film with some humour. Though if he was worried about the darkness maybe he could have toned down the brutality of the murders. It could also be a sly statement on the ineptitude of the police in this investigation, though aside from the character he plays, he appears to treat the other individual lawmen quite respectfully.
It’s all tied together with this authoritarian Dragnet style voice over which tells of the town’s growing hysteria and developments in the investigation. Again this feels out of step with the gratuitousness of the murders and ridiculousness of the police horseplay. There’s also an element of police procedural about this, which is quite rare in slasher films, though to be fair beyond driving around hoping they’ll catch the killer in the act, or wading through crazies turning themselves in and taking credit for the murders, I have no idea what the police strategy was.
The director Charles B. Pierce was one of the first independent American directors/ producers. His first film 1972’s The Legend of Boggy Creek had a similar faux documentary feel and made $25 million on the drive in circuit. Whilst The Town That Dreaded Sundown was probably his biggest hit, and that’s despite helming an American Viking film starring Lee Majors (The Norseman). He is also credited with coining the infamous “Go Ahead Make My Day,” line as a writer on Clint Eastwood’s 1983 Dirty Harry film Sudden Impact. But make no mistake The Town That Dreaded Sundown is such an amazing anomaly that is must be seen. It’s beautifully shot, and features some great acting from the likes of Peckinpah alumni Ben Johnson (Shane/ The Last Picture Show) and Dawn Wells from Gilligan’s Island. It is such an amazing contusion of ideas and genres that it will scare the bejesus out of you one moment, before hurting you with cheesy slapstick and bad dialogue the next. Somehow this just makes it all the more terrifying.