31 Days of Horror 2014, Day 12: The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976)

I’m really glad that I my cat and I decided to watch this movie! Despite the fact that I felt like the shadows of Tom Servo and Crow should have been in the corner of the screen the whole time, this flick couldn’t be more so bad it’s good. The failings of The Town that Dreaded Sundown are really a product of the time that it was made in than anything. Coincidentally, these failings are pretty charming.

Why can't they make posters like these anymore?

Why can’t they make posters like these anymore?

For starters, there’s this strange voice over throughout the movie that tells us unnecessary facts like “four months passed…” or “the sheriff was carrying a 12-gauge shotgun”. Modern film is smart enough to show us time has passed, instead of just telling us, which makes this narration seem totally out of place. On one hand, this disembodied voice also makes it seem like the film is actually a documentary, made to warn teenagers of the dangers of parking. And how many modern movies capitalize on this same concept indifferent ways? This is pretty much what the entire found footage movement is gunning for; fear that is cultivated because what’s on screen seems real. If I try to imagine that I’m watching The Town that Dreaded Sundown in the mid nineteen-seventies, and I know that this movie is based on true events, then perhaps that voice over would have done something to make the movie seem more real and threatening. Of course, from a modern view point, it just seems hokey. The cops are pretty corny too, dressing up like women to try and trick the killer into thinking they are parking with their boyfriends, and flying through the air and into a small pond, like the villain in an episode of Dukes of Hazzard.

The other notable problem with this movie is that the Phantom Killer, while admittedly cool looking in his burlap mask, is utterly incompetent. Sure, he kills four teens, but those teens are seriously lacking in mental capacity. Basically, the killer is so bad that the victims have to be certifiably stupid to make the scenes work at all. I’m going to point out what is probably one of the most iconic scenes of the film to prove my point. If you google “The Town that Dreaded” and wait to see what common searches come up, you will see that one of them continues this phrase with the words “…Sundown trombone”. That’s because there is a scene in this film in which the phantom killer stabs a girl to death with a pocket knife tied. to. a. trombone. Let that sink in. I don’t know if the fantastic trombone murder is based on any truth. I sure hope not, because the lengths they went through to make this scene happen are really over the top. The killer waits until the teens are pulling away from “lover’s lane” to jump on their car. Then, he rides on the door and makes them wreck as he flails his arms through the open window. Once the frazzled teens stumble out of their mildly inconvenient state of having their car roll up against a tree, the boy attempts to fight the killer, ends up with a bloody head, and is shot as he fumbles around on a conveniently placed metal gate. The girl on the other hand, commences to screaming “no, no, no!” as she slowly traipses through the woods. Once captured my the phantom killer, no challenging feat, she is tied to a tree. I want to emphasize how little of a fight this gal puts up. She just says “no, no please” until the killer ties his knife to her trombone and then attempts to play it, sliding the knife into her back as he puffs little farts of air into the mouth piece. I have never in my life seen a kill more ridiculous, and I’ve watched Sand Sharks.

All this aside, I do have a few praise things about this film:

Primarily, there is some innovative cinematography happening here. The director clearly went out of his way to create a sense of suspense and to facilitate a willful suspension of disbelief. A cheaper B-horror film would have nothing but rough cut shots, but Charles Pierce, known best as a set designer for a number of well known westerns and blacksploitation films, does have a certain finesse. Smooth dolly shots are a common characteristic of The Town that Dreaded Sundown, adding interest to the visual aspect of the film. Some other little effects, though laughable, are also sort of lovable. Like when the narrator goes out of his way to tell us it’s rainy, and then we see Deputy Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine) sitting in the station window, looking out over the town and then flipping the blinds shut as water is obviously sprayed onto the window with a hose to create the illusion of rain. It’s darling.

In addition, the last twenty minutes of the film truly do get into some good stuff. The atmosphere of that last murder is legitimately creepy, as the phantom killer attacks a young couple in their own home, in the country. Sure it doesn’t make sense that the killer would kick out the screen door of the house only to shoot a gun at his victims, but the moment still looks and feels very real. Just before this, Mrs. Reed sees the killer walk by the front window and shoot her husband as he sits in his chair reading the paper. It’s a fairly uncanny moment. Mrs. Reed, though shot twice, once in the face, does manage to get away, and what proceeds is a chase through the surrounding corn field. I don’t care what anybody says, being in a corn field at night is utterly disorienting. These moments, where we see the killer stepping between the rows under the light of a clear and full moon; these are scenes with presence. Kudos to Pierce for creating moments like this one:

town that dreaded sundown corn

Of course, the story tails off by sticking to the true story of what happened in Texarkana; the murderer gets away. Nonetheless, I thought watching this was loads of  fun, though my husband would disagree. He walked in just in time to see a knife tied to a trombone.

 

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