johnlink ranks THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (1976)

I knew absolutely nothing about this movie going into it. In fact, the only reason I watched it was because the movie was mentioned in SCREAM. Rose McGowan looks around at deserted Woodsboro and declares that “It’s the town that dreaded sundown.” I never even knew she was referencing a specific movie until this thing popped across Turner Classic Movies. Turns out I’m not crazy though. This is a movie which had a limited VHS release, but has never been released on any kind of disc. TCM recently acquired a widescreen version of the film and has given it a couple of sporadic runs.

I watched THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (1976) on 6.25.12. It was my first viewing of the film.

I really wanted to like this movie. It obviously influenced Kevin Williamson enough to reference it in his script. The movement and the mask of the killer in SUNDOWN can be seen mimicked (if only slightly) in the ghostfaced killers of the SCREAM franchise.

Just a few days after acknowledging how well THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION succeeded at overcoming the narration trap, here comes SUNDOWN with an overbearing narrator who tells us things we don’t need to know. We learn that this is the true story of the Texarcana killer, who terrorized a Texas/Arkansas border town for a few months in the late 1940s. He tells us this is a true story except for the changed names. He introduces us to the victims before they are killed, a pattern which aids only in eliminating the suspense from any given scene. At one point the narrator explains why a police officer does not shoot at a fleeing car, citing the gauge of the shotgun as evidence that there would have been no point. It was flabbergasting just how much inanity filled the narration.

The acting from the police officers is not terrible. Ben Johnson plays Captain Morales, in from Austin to track this serial killer. Andrew Prine portrays Deputy Sheriff Ramsey, and he serves as the central protagonist despite the ample presence of Johnson. The acting from the victims, however, is pretty embarrassing. The men want to have sex and never hear strange noises. The women are all jumpy and merely scream over and over again when confronted by their attacker. The first attack features a woman screaming in her car for no less than a minute and a half. This is followed by a full minute of screeching ambulance siren. I started to wonder if the film was trying to annoy its viewers.

One attack in particular is almost too creative, and as such, belies the true-story nature of the film. I hardly think the killer stopped to attach a knife to the end of a trombone and attempted to play said trombone, skewering the victim repeatedly. A little research shows that a discarded saxophone was found near the victim, though there was no evidence that the killer attempted to use it as a weapon in any way. That sort of elaboration just felt silly, especially since the film spends so much time in the mundane details of the detectives learning nothing and then telling the media that they know nothing.

The filmmaking is pretty weak. No consistency in  tone is found. Shock is followed by absolute silly bumbling by a new police officer named Spark Plug, played by Director Charles B. Pierce. That particular officer can’t drive, can’t follow orders, and can’t do basic police work. The humor is intentional, but it doesn’t make it funny. It also undercuts the film, because these scenes will be followed by a narrator turning the film serious again and declaring that we are about to see someone else get killed.

The fillmaking also fails with silly things like using day-for-night. A nighttime police station scene is followed by a nighttime killing sequence, only the nighttime in the killing sequence looks nothing like the police station because the murder was shot during the daytime. It all makes for a confusing timeline, especially when they later shoot nighttime attacks in the actual nighttime (novel concept). The entire film feels haphazardly filmed, and there isn’t a charm in doing so because the narration wants us to believe this is all so very true.

THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN came in between TEXAS CHAINSAW and HALLOWEEN. It is not as effectively shocking as CHAINSAW, nor does it get the slasher genre nearly as well as HALLOWEEN. There are a few successful attacks, specifically the final killing when the killer breaks his pattern and invades somebody’s home. But the good is far outweighed by the bad.

And here is a spoiler if you are not familiar with the true story of the Texarkana killer. He was never caught. No one knows what happened to him, or why he stopped. The film tries to give us a hint, and tries to turn our protagonists into heroes by doing so. But the climax feels like a giant shrug, like nobody really knew what to do to put a button on the film. It serves as a weak ending to a mostly weak film.






~ by johnlink00 on June 26, 2012.

One Response to “johnlink ranks THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (1976)”

  1. […] 2012: Saw the original. Thought it was not very well done. […]

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