Part of being a cineaste is being able to bluff your way through conversations about films you’ve never actually seen. The canon of classic films is incredibly vast, and unless your name is Leonard Maltin, you’ve probably only seen a fraction (show of hands: how many people reading this have actually watched a film by Bela Tarr? All the way through?). This is even more true in horror circles, where a film is just as likely to be renowned for an outrageous title as it is for any actual merits. Some of these much-referenced, little-seen “classics” live up to their titles (the delightful Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers), some don’t (the snoozeworthy Flesh-Eating Mothers), but unless you grew up with an excellent video store, permissive parents, and an unfathomable amount of free time, you’ve barely seen any.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a quintessential example. Every horror fan knows the title (it was namedropped with typical precision in the first Scream), but until recently, it was almost impossible to get ahold of. Fortunately for the completist, that’s recently changed: the trash-saints at Scream Factory recently selected it for one of their reliably excellent special editions, it recently received the “reboot” treatment from American Horror Story’s Ryan Murphy, and the Coolidge has programmed it to headline their retrospective of down-home horror maestro Charles B. Pierce. But, as always, the question remains: is it any good?
As it happens, it is. The plot (which, until watching it, I had always assumed was about vampires) is a semi-fictionalization of a real-life series of killings which terrorized Texarkana in the 1940s, perpetrated by the masked, still-unidentified Phantom Killer. The omniscient narrator (Vern Stierman, who previously narrated Pierce’s breakthrough hit The Legend of Boggy Creek) makes the film seem as much like a series of reenactments as a narrative. Modern viewers will likely draw comparisons to David Fincher’s underrated Zodiac, given the focus on the investigation, the necessarily inconclusive ending, and the periodic, harrowing slayings by a masked assailant.
And oh, those slayings. What fascinates me the most is how starkly the murders (which, in typical horror fashion, occur roughly every twenty minutes) contrast with the rest of the movie. The folksy narration and affable cops (including bumbling Patrolman A.C. “Sparkplug” Benson, played by Pierce himself) make much of the film feel like a slightly grittier episode of The Dukes of Hazard, which makes it all the more jarring when a young woman is tortured with a knife attached to the slide of a trombone, or when Dawn Wells (Mary Ann!) is terrorized in the cornfields by her home. It’s like a History Channel special where someone accidentally mixed up the reenactment footage with a few reels of snuff film.
The result is a thoroughly memorable drive-in shocker – lower key than, say, The Last House on the Left, but never unlikable, and with fright scenes which still retain their power. The town of Texarkana, incidentally, was initially somewhat miffed at their portrayal in the film (sample tagline: “In 1946, this man killed five people… Today he STILL LURKS the streets of Texarkana, Arkansas!”), but has since embraced it, with regular screenings in the very theater used in the film. Perhaps they, like the rest of us, finally got around to seeing it.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown
dir. Charles B. Pierce
Part of the ongoing series: Southern Phantoms: 3 by Charles B. Pierce