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The Town That Dreaded Sundown(1976)
A Texas Ranger hunts for a hooded serial killer terrorizing the residents of a small town, set in 1946 Texarkana. Based on a true story.
For more about The Town That Dreaded Sundown and the The Town That Dreaded Sundown Blu-ray release, see the The Town That Dreaded Sundown Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on May 18, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Director: Charles B. Pierce
Writer: Earl E. Smith
Starring: Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Dawn Wells, Jimmy Clem, Jim Citty, Charles B. Pierce
» See full cast & crew
The Town That Dreaded Sundown Blu-ray Review
Where were you when the lights went out?
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, May 18, 2013
What is it about a villain who wraps his head in a sack that is so instantly frightening and iconic? Films have been awash with this image for years. Some of the sacked bad guys have appropriately been scarecrows, as in the two similarly titles films Night of the Scarecrow and Dark Night of the Scarecrow, but a number of more traditional horror films, including everything from the Saw franchise to the somewhat related The Collector and its follow up The Collection, have employed similar imagery. What's kind of interesting about this situation is that there are tons of films where the villain's face is hidden or even masked behind some sort of gruesome Halloween costume, but those offerings just don't seem to elicit quite the same level of atavistic fear that the sacked bad guys usually do. The 1976 cult film The Town That Dreaded Sundown is yet another film that has a mad killer on the loose who swaths his head in material, and it's one of the spookier efforts that employs this now iconic approach. Based on a real life series of murders that took place in and around Texarkana, a town that straddles the state line of Texas and Arkansas (though there are officially two separate municipalities, in truth half of the town is in one state, while half is in the other), The Town That Dreaded Sundown has been rather liberally fictionalized from the true life events, but it still is a disturbing and often riveting supposed recreation of one of the earliest known examples of a serial killer in America. One of the most frightening aspects to the story is that in the actual real life events, the culprit was never caught, something that the film also mines for its unsettling climax.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown takes place in what would seem to be a storied era in United States history, the post-World War II afterglow when our fighting troops had returned home and the economy seemed to be chugging right along. The film alludes to this state of affairs in the narration (which recurs throughout the film) that introduces us to the bucolic climes of Texarkana while alerting us to the fact that there were waiting lists for new cars. Texarkana seems to be something of a storybook town, albeit one forged in the dusty, humid environment of the Deep South.
Things take a decided turn away from storybook territory when two kids parked at the town's Lovers' Lane are viciously attacked by a hooded madman who rips the electrical wires out of the kids' car engine and then busts through the driver's side window with a baton, reaching in and pulling the stunned boy out through the window. We see him start to attack the girl as well before the film segues to the next morning when a passerby sees the girl, bloodied and barely able to move, attempting to crawl across the highway. It turns out that both kids have managed to survive, though both are badly wounded and are obviously in shock.
Deputy Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine) is first on the scene of the bloodied couple, and he soon becomes a motivating force in the investigation. There are some disturbing aspects to the case (the female had been chewed on various parts of her body), but unfortunately with few clues and two shell shocked victims, there's little progress made and the assumption is made this was either a random anomaly or someone out for revenge against these specific two. The police department does put out a warning that no one should be parking on lonely roads late at night, which of course two dunderheaded young people ultimately do, leading to disastrous results. Ramsey stumbles across two gruesomely murdered people in a rainy forest, and misses catching the nicknamed The Phantom by mere moments.
It's now obvious that Texarkana is dealing with something they've never encountered before, and the figurative cavalry is brought in when a Texas Ranger named Captain Morales (Ben Johnson, at that point relatively recently off of his Oscar for The Last Picture Show) arrives to help with the investigation. The FBI also starts making its presence known, but the town is on edge, pretty much afraid to go out after dark.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown takes a quasi-documentary approach to this material, including portentous narration which alerts us that another victim is about to be slaughtered. The next two are two more idiotic youths who decide to drive out into the wilderness in the middle of the night, early proponents of the yet to be named Darwin Awards. Of course they're attacked, in one of the film's most famous sequences, albeit one that has nothing to do with the real life case and which seriously undercuts the film's fairly realistic depictions up to this point. The Phantom makes quick work of the male, but after tying the female to a tree, he rather creatively uses her trombone (yes, her trombone) as a weapon. It's laugh out loud funny, but it is also admittedly gruesome and disturbing.
Much, much better is a sequence that is in fact based on the real life killing spree, where a young woman (played by Gilligan's Island's erstwhile Maryann, Dawn Wells) is mortified to see her husband shot through a large window and who is herself then shot when The Phantom breaks into the couple's house. While The Phantom looms over the body of her husband, the woman manages to crawl out of her house and evades The Phantom in the middle of the night in a spooky cornfield.
While the police attempt to do good work, they're hobbled by a veritable gaggle of people confessing to the crime, as well as their inability to really grasp the depth of the madness they're dealing with. A lucky break finally gets them close to The Phantom, in an exciting climactic sequence, but the film ends exactly as the real life case did—with no culprit caught. Indie cult hero Charles S. Pierce (who appears in the film as the Barney Fife-ish deputy Sparkplug) does rather creditable work in The Night That Dreaded Sundown, creating a climate of oppressive fear without ever really dwelling on outright violence or even gore. (Pierce has entered the annals of film trivia for having written the screenplay to Sudden Impact , which included what is probably Clint's most iconic line, "Go ahead, make my day".) The film is obviously a low budget affair, but somehow that ethos only suits the Southern Gothic atmosphere of the proceedings all the better.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown Blu-ray, Video Quality
The Town That Dreaded Sundown is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of Shout! Factory with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.40:1. This film basically disappeared for years, and the good news is that the elements utilized for this transfer are in mostly excellent shape, with only occasional white specks and a few flecks of dirt cropping up from time to time. The basic image is decently sharp, though viewers will need to understand the low budget filming conditions coming into this enterprise and not be expecting the pristine digital look of a contemporary film. While there doesn't appear to have been any egregious digital tweaking to the elements, which retain substantial amounts of grain, there are a couple of minor instances of ringing on display. Colors are accurate looking and nicely saturated. Contrast is generally good, though some of the actual nighttime footage (as opposed to filtered day for night sequences) suffer from minor crush.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The Town That Dreaded Sundown features a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio Mono mix delivered via a 2.0 mix. Fidelity is quite good, though the track is obviously narrow and shallow sounding. Dialogue is always easy to hear and both environmental sound effects and the rather good (and at times twangy) score also are also rendered faithfully.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
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The Town That Dreaded Sundown Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Shout! Factory continues to mine some great little "lost" classics for its Scream Factory imprint, and this package is among the best the label has yet released. The Town That Dreaded Sundown takes its quasi-documentary ambience seriously (at least if one forgets the regrettable comedy bits Pierce gives to himself as Sparkplug), and the story is riveting. If occasionally things are unintentionally funny (I for one will never look at a slide trombone quite the same way), there are a lot of very effective sequences in the film. As Andrew Prine mentions in his interview, the entire cast knew they weren't going to be donning tuxes to go to the Academy Awards for this film, but there's a low rent honesty to this enterprise that is really refreshing. With very good video and audio and some great supplements, The Town That Dreaded Sundown comes Highly recommmended.
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The Town That Dreaded Sundown Blu-ray, News and Updates
• First Look at The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014) - September 10, 2014
MGM's Orion Pictures has released the first official trailer for Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's film The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014), starring Addison Timlin, Gary Cole, Spencer Treat Clark, Ed Lauter, and Veronica Cartwright. The film is set to open in select theaters ...
• The Burning and The Town That Dreaded Sundown Announced - February 1, 2013
Scream Factory, the horror-thriller offshoot of independent film distributor Shout Factory, has detailed its upcoming Blu-ray releases of Charles B. Pierce's The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) and Tony Maylam's The Burning (1981). Both will street on May 21.
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