Fans of horror will recognize the getup immediately: a man wearing overalls and a sack cloth on his head tied at the neck. Most would conjure Jason from Friday the 13th Part 2, but Charles Pierce did it first with his police procedural The Town that Dreaded Sundown. A true rarity on the home video market over the years, Scream Factory reaches even farther into the cult drawer to dig up this bizarre little film released from 1976.
The small town of Texarkana, which straddles Texas and Arkansas was haunted by a vicious serial killer who claimed the lives of five people in 1946. Dubbed “The Phantom Killer” by the media, this once peaceful town was transformed into a fearful community, full of paranoid residents who were armed to the teeth by the second set of murders. Texas Ranger J.D.Morales (Ben Johnson) is called upon to help solve the series of killings, along with the local law enforcement: Deputy Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine), Police Chief R.J. Sullivan (Jim Citty), and Patrolman A.C. “Sparky” Benson, the film's director Charles B. Pierce pulling double duty.
Pierce's film is a cornucopia of technique and ideas, starting with a pseudo documentary or newsreel setup with a narrator explaining the history of the town briefly and introducing the audience to the menace stalking the townspeople at night. The film then shifts gears to grim recreations of the murders, full of shouting and screaming by the victims and heavy breathing by the killer, that are disarmingly effective and bleak. The film again does a left turn by becoming a police procedural, with a great deal of comic relief by the bumbling police force, reminiscent of a Keystone Kops film, or the inept investigators of Wes Craven's Last House on the Left. This ever changing technique doesn't do the material any justice and it can't decide at any given moment what it is trying to be and so succeeds at none. One truly stand out sequence involving a trombone and a pair of young lovers who have gone parking after the prom makes the film worth seeing by itself. It will stick with you, that's a promise.
This low budget thriller has a few names on hand, most notably Andrew Prince and Ben Johnson, who do what they can with the script. Dawn Wells of Gilligan's Island fame also shows up at the end of the film playing one of the victims of “The Phantom Killer." With it being a regional production, talent may have been hard to hunt down, but it somehow lends a bit more realism in an odd way to the film and isn't nearly as distracting as it could be otherwise.
There is a second film to review here, and that is Pierce's The Evictors starring Jessica Harper and Michael Parks as a couple who move into a house in a small Louisiana town. It isn't long before the townsfolk want them out of the house and their town for fear of some mysterious goings on at the home many years before which haunt the small hamlet. The film is full of atmosphere and a creeping sense of dread for the young couple. Harper is great in her role and Parks delivers, as usual. Vic Morrow also stars and does what Morrow does best: get under your skin. I'll keep it short, as it's the secondary feature, and listed as a bonus feature, but I have to say I enjoyed this more than The Town that Dreaded Sundown. Perhaps someone will look into giving this full blown release some day. Until then, it's a nice addition and looks good on the DVD.
Moving on to the technical side of things, Sundown looks nice in HD, but not great. The print is fairly clean, with only a few minor scratches and dings. Without a major restoration this is likely the best the film is going to look and kudos to Scream Factory for their work on it. The film's detail is nice and flesh tones look natural, with none of the color shifting that can plague many low budget films of the era. The audio is relegated to a single track, which gets the job does, but is nothing special.
Again, we have a stacked deck of bonus features kicking off with a commentary by Justin Beahm and crime historian Jim Presley. It's a bit dry and on the academic side, but informative, since Presley actually worked the case. Beahm helps keep things moving and is a good moderator and entertaining speaker in equal measure. It's definitely worth a listen. A series of interviews follows, where Dawn Wells, Andrew Prine and DP James Roberson are all given time to discuss their contributions to the film and share their memories of the project. A theatrical trailer and a poster/still gallery wrap things up.
A film with a considerable cult following, The Town that Dreaded Sundown finally sees the light of day on Blu-ray in a respectable package from Scream Factory. The Blu-ray/DVD combo pack has a nice assortment of supplemental material, and the inclusion of Charles B. Pierce's The Intruders on the DVD is a most welcome addition. One of the “based on a true story” horror/thrillers that actually is based on real events, Sundown ultimately fails to garner real interest due to its lack of narrative focus and stylistic cohesion. That being said, the film has a sizable audience, and they will surely enjoy this release.
Film Score: 2.5/5 Disc Score: 4/5