The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

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Yet another gift from TCM. Their little “TCM Underground” (which technically doesn’t exist anymore even though they keep showing ‘cult classics’ in the same time slot) movies bring me such unexpected joy.

Anyway, The Town That Dreaded Sundown follows the local sheriff’s department and a Texas Ranger as they try to discover who’s been terrorizing the residents of the small town of Texarkana, Arkansas.

No. Not that Texarkana.

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Don’t worry. The beer is safe.

The movie is actually loosely based on real events that happened in Texarkana in 1946. And I don’t mean true as in Texas Chainsaw Massacre murdering ‘true.’ No, there really was a ‘Phantom Killer.’ You can read about the incident here, if you like. And he really did attack eight people in Texarkana, Ark..

The movie is presented in a docudrama style, with the occasional stylistic flourish. This is fitting, as the omniscient narrator gives the film an authenticity similar to shows like, say, Dateline. However, it’s also a bit disappointing, as the style of filming itself, by its very nature, takes away a great deal of suspense. There is no question when the killer is going to strike. It’s plainly spelled out for you each time with a helpful caption.

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Dear God, please help us to control our hormones so we don’t die horribly this evening at the
hands of that psycho killer we’ve been hearing so much about.

But that doesn’t mean the film lacks suspense. The very intimate scenes involving the killer and his victims are the best in the film and each one of them is so incredibly tense that they’re almost uncomfortable to watch. These are the film’s strengths. At the time of it’s original release, the director was criticized for the film’s graphic depictions of violence. Of course, they’re down right tame by today’s standards, probably not even considered explicit, but it’s still disturbing to watch the slow, drawn out scenes of the killer satisfying his murderous impulses.

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Not to mention his love of Jazz.

The low points of the movie always, without fail, involve the police. For some reason it was deemed necessary to add elements of slapstick comedy to the film, effectively killing the tense atmosphere created in other scenes. This is usually limited to one character in particular, complete with his own bouncy music que, and you will watch in absolute awe, and wonder how the hell he got admitted to the police department in the first place (clue: he’s the director).

Luckily these moments are sparce, but believe me, the director took advantage of them more than he should have (because of course he did.) Even in moments when they’re looking for the killer that should have been strictly serious.

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Someone thinks they’re getting lucky tonight and I’m not talking about being
able to catch the killer. Also, he makes a really ugly woman.

Yet despite these instances of stupidity the film still manages to retain an air of menace.

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That’s thanks entirely to this guy.

The actors are about on par with what you’d expect from a film like this. Most of the actors are amateurs and many of the extras were citizens of Texarkana, but there are two exceptions. Ben Johnson, who plays the Texas Ranger, is a veteran of many a western, so he has no issue making his role believable. The other exception is Dawn Wells. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, then I’m very disappointed in you.

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Did he just ask me to buy a coconut radio or
did I smoke too much pot in the car?

Yup. Freakin’ Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island makes an appearance in this film. Yeah. I didn’t expect to see her there either, but, there she was, and, I’ve got to say, she had what was probably the best scene in the movie. That said, it was a little unsettling watching poor Mary Ann getting chased by a psycho with a sack over his face.

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Sorry, hun. Gilligan and the Skipper can’t help you now.

Overall, this is a fine example of an early slasher. It takes a couple of cues from it’s predecessors, but doesn’t rely on them and makes the film it’s own. It’s definitely a cult classic, if for no other reason than for being the obvious influence of the look of Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th Part 2.

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Director: “Maybe giving him a machete would make him more menacing….
Nah, he’s probably fine.

Perhaps the most chilling aspect of this film, and the actual events it was based on, is the knowledge that the killer was never caught. Sure he’s probably long dead by now, or at least no longer a threat, but just knowing that we will probably never know the truth leaves some nagging questions at the back of your mind…..and will probably make you double check the bolts on the doors.

So, yeah, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a little hokey and a lot dated. But its got some great scenes and great atmosphere when it’s focusing on the main villain. This is a  definite recommend for slasher fans, especially those interested in the history of the genre.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown is currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

It has also received a Bluray release from the fine people at Shout! (Scream!) Factory.

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