Saturday, November 22, 2014
My latest article at Flashbak remembers the greatest teachers of sci-fi TV!
Here's the snippet and url: (http://flashbak.com/the-5-greatest-teachers-in-sci-fi-tv-history-25973/)
"In real life, we have all sat in classrooms with teachers we love and admire, and also teachers that we can’t stand. In science fiction television history, there have been many ideal or role-model teachers depicted; individuals who are worthy of respect but also, through their very personalities, reveal to students good character and life lessons.
Here is a list of the five sci-fi TV teachers you hope you meet in the classroom..."
In “The Exile,” Korg (Jim Malinda) faces a terrible crisis. During a standard hunt, Korg accidentally kills a bird with a stone.
Afterwards, bad things start to happen. Bok (Bill Ewing) is injured in a hunt. The water near the cave inexplicably goes bad. Hunting a deer proves unproductive.
Korg grows convinced that the Unseen Spirits are angry with him for killing the bird, and that he will only bring pain and suffering to his family if he stays with him.
Therefore, over Mara’s objections Korg leaves the tribe, striking out on his own.
Mara (Naomi Pollock) refuses to eat, and soon develops a fever. Korg’s children attempt to convince him to return home to the cave, but first he must be swayed from his belief that the Gods want him separate from his family…
“The Exile” is one of the most intriguing and relevant episodes of Korg 70,000 BC (1974), because it serves, essentially, as a critique of faith-based decision-making.
Here, Korg “interprets” signs around him -- namely a streak of bad luck -- and ascribes them to his God, The Great Spirit.
If bad things are happening, then the Great Spirit must be mad, right?
From that jump of faith, Korg makes another.He decides that the right thing to do is leave his beloved family, protecting him from his God’s wrath.
Of course, Korg’s family suffers in his absence, especially Mara.
The idea here is that attempting to divine what God wants from you is a fool’s game. And more trenchantly, interpreting signs of nature as God’s will, whether working for or against you, is similarly, unproductive.
Accordingly, the episode goes to great length to describe the superstitious nature of Early Man, and notes that “a man alone” has little chance of survival in the dangerous world of 70,000 B.C.
So Korg’s (absolutely sincere) beliefs are actually endangering him and his family, not helping anyone. His belief is impeding him, not solving any problems.
Importantly, the family is reunited only when another divine sign is "interpreted." A woodpecker leads Bok and Tane to Korg. It's all kind of a self-fulfilling circle. A sign can be positive or negative, and yet it's still totally random. In situations like this, we're the ones imposing some "cause" or purpose behind completely innocuous events.
“The Exile” doesn’t spell any of this out in an aggressive way, but it’s impossible not to detect the implications of the tale. Korg, a “primitive man” by our 21st century standards is actually not very much unlike many of us who live here today, adhering to closely-held superstitious beliefs. At least Korg has a valid excuse: the dearth of understanding about the Earth of the Neanderthals’ Age.
“The Exile” features a bit more action than the other episodes I’ve reviewed thus far. Korg goes up against a man-eating lion in one scene, and the episode begins with the tribe’s ill-destined hunt.
“The Exile” also re-uses some of Meredith’s narration from “Trapped,” particularly the bit about “experiencing one of nature’s calamities,” an earthquake.
Next week: “The Running Fight.”
In the BraveStarr episode “Skuzz and Fuzz,” the bandit Tex-Hex searches for the secret tunnel of the Prairie People, one that leads to a newly discovered mother-lode of the valuable ore, Kerium.
BraveStarr has selected Deputy Fuzz to help guard the Kerium. But when Tex Hex’s minion Skuzz interferes, a self-destruct mechanism is activated over the Kerium’s force dome, and the enemies must work together to prevent total destruction…
I have a rule about BraveStarr storytelling: a little bit of the Prairie People goes a long way.
The characters are fine in small doses, but any more than that and the episode in question becomes unwatchable real fast.
“Skuzz and Fuzz” focuses primarily on the helium-voiced, slapstick-ish Prairie People characters, and consequently emerges as a not particularly good episode of the series. Both hapless Fuzz and arrogant Skuzz are supposed to be comic relief, but at the center of the drama they are…highly annoying.
The episode’s message is that “there’s a little good even in the worst of people.” This message is voiced because Skuzz repays a debt and saves Fuzz’s life at one point, thereby proving the axiom. Of course, just a few episodes back in “Thoren the Slave Master,” we had a different story (in that case, BraveStarr and Tex Hex) being forced to work together in a crisis.
Despite the generally irritating and over-sized presence of the Prairie People supporting characters in “Suzz and Fuzz,” the episode does feature some nice landscape vistas, with large moons looming over New Texas’s desert surface. BraveStarr's persistent visual imagination is often a welcome relief when sub-part storytelling rears its head.
Next week: “Who am I?”
Friday, November 21, 2014
There’s a case to be made that the seldom-seen The Evictors (1979) is actually Charles B. Pierce’s best horror film.
Exhibit A: The Evictors doesn’t boast the lapses into amateurism that mar The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972).
Exhibit B: The film doesn’t feature the bizarre lapses in tone one finds in The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976), either.
Exhibit C: Finally,The Evictors features better performances and far more effective scares than the miserably bad Boggy Creek II: And the Legend Continues (1985).
Instead, The Evictors is a kind of back-to-basics horror film all about a woman alone in an isolated setting (a farm house), contending with a frightening, relentless intruder.
In this case, Jessica Harper plays the imperiled character, and Michael Parks portrays the most useless, unhelpful husband in horror movie history. But the film’s most potent set-pieces involve Harper contending with an armed home intruder during the thick of the night
These scenes of terror (set in 1942) are cross-cut with quasi-documentary style sequences (presented in sepia tone coloring) of historical attacks in the same house, set in 1934 and 1939. By cutting between the scenes in the past (which ended badly for the home’s residents) with scenes from the movie’s present -- in which another character must overcome the same menacing individual -- a genuine sense of suspense is generated. In short order, we start to understand the house's history of horror and recognize Harper as only the latest, but not the last, victim.
You may cry foul over the film’s final twist or surprise, which suggests that a character would keep using broken glasses for nineteen years, but The Evictors nonetheless manages to impress, both in terms of its production values (and period detail), and visceral impact. In short, this is one of those diamonds in the rough, a real sleeper, that more horror fans should take a look at.
“There’s been a lot of strange things happening around here.”
In mid-summer 1928, a representative of Shreveport Union Bank attempts to deliver an eviction notice to a rural farm-house that belongs to the Monroe Family.
Because he has failed to do so on previous attempts, the bank officer brings heavily-armed Federal agents this time. A confrontation ensues between the family inside and the agents of the law, with the Monroes believed gunned-down.
In 1942, real estate agent Jake Rudd (Vic Morrow) sells the long-vacant Monroe house to a young married couple, Ruth (Jessica Harper) and Ben Watkins (Michael Parks). Rudd doesn’t share any information about the house’s violent history, but Ruth soon learns that former owners were murdered in 1934.
Later, she hears from a crippled neighbor, Mrs. Gibson (Sue Ane Langdon) that another couple died there as well, in 1939. The husband was electrocuted and the wife was burned alive.
Soon, Ruth begins seeing a strange intruder, wearing overalls, lurking around the house by night.
Ben’s job often takes him away, to Shreveport, but he asks the town sheriff to patrol near the house, and then teaches Ruth how to use a gun. Ruth, however, wants to move.
Unfortunately, neither the police nor the weapon can prevent the strange, obsessed intruder from waging a campaign of terror and death on the Watkins and their house…
“It’s so nice to see that old house come back to life.”
In some significant sense, all of Charles B. Pierce’s horror films deal with man’s connection to the land, or to his home. In The Legend of Boggy Creek, the Fouke Monster terrorizes the locals, but the film spends as much time introducing the storied people of the town as it does contending with the monster itself. Similarly, The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) finds the folks of Texarkana under siege, fighting for their very homes against a ruthless, inexplicable killer.
The Evictors -- which commences with the claim that it is based on a true story -- concerns what occurs when a family feels it has been displaced from its rightful land, its rightful home. The “evictors” of the title are not just the bankers and agents of the film’s first scene, but the murderous stranger and his hidden accomplices who use lethal force to keep “their” farm house unoccupied. If they can't live in their own home, no one will. At least not for long.
The Evictors thrives as the most consistent and suspenseful of Pierce’s films in part because the director sticks, largely, to that parcel of land upon which the Monroe House stands. There isn’t a lot of back forth, or opportunities for slapstick humor or car chases.
Instead, Pierce crafts a sense of unnerving, unrelieved claustrophobia because Ruth (Suspiria’s Harper) really seems to have no hope for escape. She begs her husband to move, but he doesn’t acquiesce. Meanwhile, he is constantly going away on business trips or working late at the local town factory. He is almost never home when he is needed, and so we get the sense, after a while, that a confrontation between Ruth and the stranger is inevitable. She can’t escape that fate.
In some way, this element of the story may be a sly commentary on what it meant to be married in the 1940s, at least from a woman's perspective. Ruth has no say in what happens to her family, even if her very life is on the line.
Pierce stages some splendid and disturbing sequences in the house, as Ruth’s safety is imperiled again and again. At one juncture, a lightning flash reveals the killer standing at the kitchen door in darkest night.
On another occasion -- while Ruth is on the phone -- she sees the shadow’s stranger lurking upstairs, hovering above her on the second floor. She runs for her life as the killer begins to slowly descend the staircase. In a scene that is reminiscent of the climax of Halloween (1978) but nonetheless highly effective, Ruth attempts to flee the killer in the house, only to find that he has braced something against the exterior door, thus making egress impossible. Ruth (like Laurie Strode) has to break the glass and remove the impediment, a wood board, to escape, and to run free into the dark, inhospitable night.
These scenes are authentically scary, and they are, for all practical purposes, the heart of the film. The Evictors concerns one woman -- disbelieved -- forced to rely on her own auspices in a time of precious little autonomy, if she wishes to survive.
The film also plays cleverly with the idea of Ruth arming herself, and taking her defense into her own hands. There are, clearly, advantages and disadvantages to handing a loaded gun off to someone only minimally-trained in its usage. The Evictors plays on our expectations involving that gun, and in a manner that will drive you up the wall, as Ruth's danger grows, and a tragedy can't be averted.
My wife, who found herself unable to divert her attention away from the colorful The Town that Dreaded Sundown, liked The Evictors but felt that the trick ending was just too much. I've read the same complaint online.
Basically, we finally learn the identity of the stranger and his conspirators, but do so by the appearance of a prop (broken glasses) that, by this juncture in 1947 -- nineteen years since the original eviction -- should have been fixed, no doubt.
The ending is actually bit unsavory all the way around, considering what it portends for Ruth. It’s not the greatest or most effective note for the movie to go out on, but I felt that the coda didn’t mar the good work that had been done in the rest of the film.
Michael Parks (Red State) delivers a solid (if infuriating…) performance as the useless husband, but the film belongs to Harper. She is affecting as a sort of early “final girl” type in the immediate post-Halloween aftermath, before the onslaught of the 1980s. Harper's Ruth takes the time to learn about the house and its mysteries, seeks out help, attempts to defend herself, and fights ably against those who wish her ill-will. It’s too bad the movie doesn’t take the extra final step to reward Ruth for her insight and vigilance. The killers get the last laugh.
The Evictors ends with reports of another series of murders at the Monroe House, and news that “to this day, the house remains vacant,” thus leaving open the possibility of a sequel that, sadly, never came.
If you closely study The Evictors, the film also explores the idea that a social evil (even a legal one, like eviction), is bound to be met with another social evil. The original family never forgets its connection to the farmhouse, or that land, and so a legacy of terror grows around it. In today’s environment of myriad property foreclosures, it would be easy to remake The Evictors, set it in the present, and get rid of the silly eyeglasses coda.
Why do it? If nothing else, a remake would draw attention back to the original film, which was a box office bomb but nonetheless represents the most effective, focused work of its late, great director, Charles B. Pierce.
Thursday, November 20, 2014
The 2014 remake of Charles B. Pierce’s The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976) from American Horror Story (2011 - ) producer Ryan Murphy is a crafty, clever, complex horror movie that is as much a sequel to the original as it is a re-do.
Specifically, the new film involves a killer who deliberately apes the murders depicted in the seventies film, and in the exact order of the seventies film too.
But there’s also an extra layer of storytelling here because the Pierce film was, in fact, based on the real “moonlight murders” in Texarkana in 1946.
So this is a remake/sequel to a fictionalized version of a true story and unsolved crimes from sixty-six years ago.
The makers of the film certainly do, and they squeeze every ounce of “meta” self-reflexive post-modernism out of their byzantine premise, but in a joyful, imaginative and often dazzling fashion.
This Town that Dreaded Sundown actually incorporates into its body a substantial amount of footage from the original film. So much so, in fact, that a viewing requires a great deal of engagement so as to recognize the original material and separate it from the modern re-enactments. This approach sets up an intriguing dynamic for the audience, one in which you must gaze at the ’76 film, the details of the original original murders, and then the on-going attacks (the subject of the film), all through a kind of fun house mirror. It's like we're watching a dissertation about objective truth, but seen through various entertainment and historical lenses.
One thoroughly-impressive (if bizarre) scene in the film finds the killer tracking down two high-school victims to a junkyard of cast-off corporate signs. The discarded signs themselves spell out a message in symbols, bringing lettered order to a jumble of information; just as all together the moonlight murders, the Charles B. Pierce film, and the remake form a kind of unified “whole" story.
All three “events” -- true crime, original movie, and remake -- branch into and out of one another, twisting, turning, and intertwining, thus leading the audience in new and surprising directions and revelations.
It’s a confident, ambitious dance, and this is a fun, accomplished horror film.
In the end, the remake fails only its final step. The last act reveal of the masked killer’s identity is highly reminiscent of Scream (1996), which itself name-checked Town in its dialogue. This final act resolution can’t quite live up to all the meta bouncing around that has led up to it, and in the end, the remake sacrifices its sense of nimble, gamely intelligence for a “talking killer explains it all” finale.
Despite the disappointing final moments, this is a remake/sequel that is alive with its own potential and possibilities, which treads into some amazingly frightening and gruesome territory, and which, in the final analysis, evidences a great deal of respect and love for the B-movie that Pierce made all those years ago, and still makes viewers dread night-fall.
“It was like the town was being tested and no one knew why.”
Young Jami (Addison Timlin) -- who lives with her grandmother Lillian (Veronica Cartwright) -- wants to bail out of the yearly showing in Texarkana of The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976). Her new boyfriend, Corey (Spencer Treat Clark) agrees, and they drive together to a secluded lover’s lane.
Unfortunately, a copy-cat Phantom Killer, acting out the first scene of the Charles B. Pierce film, stalks them. He attacks the couple, brutally slashing Corey, and chasing Jami through the woods. He lets her live, however, as his messenger.
His message? He is committing these murders for someone named “Mary.”
The local police, including Sheriff Underwood (Ed Lauter) and Deputy Tillman (Gary Cole) are assisted by celebrated Texas “lone wolf” ranger Morales (Anthony Anderson), who very quickly determines that the new killer is staging in real life the death sequences from the 1976 film.
While Jami attempts to discover the identity of Mary, the killings continue, and she befriends a young man named Nick (Travis Tope), a clerk who permits her access to the original case files.
The search for the truth leads the duo to Charles Pierce Jr. (Denis O’Hare), the son of Charles B. Pierce. He discusses how his father had always planned a sequel to Town that Dreaded Sundown, and had even ferreted out who the original Moonlight Murderer might be…
“The past is alive, all around us.”
In spirit and detail The Town that Dreaded Sundown (2014) absolutely honors and lives up to its predecessor.
In my review of the original, earlier in the week, I wrote of Pierce’s film that its final nifty trick was how cleverly it wrote itself into the real Phantom Killer history and mythos. The last scene of the film found the killer actually attending the movie, still at large thirty years later.
This remake/sequel extends that trick, with the Pierce film itself (and the suspicions of its director) ultimately taking center stage. The 1976 film is the well-spring from which the murderer’s activities spring, at the same time that the details of the actual case play a crucial role in the motivation, if not the execution of those crimes.
The 1976 film is the outline, in other words, for all the gruesome death scenes in this remake.
Now I know what you’re thinking: most horror film remakes -- Halloween (2007), Friday the 13th (2009), A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) – also meticulously re-stage famous “kill” sequences from their predecessors. That's why they are reviled. They tread over beloved territory, and usually not very effectively.
But the difference here is that The Town that Dreaded Sundown re-imagination not only follows the outline of the original…it actually incorporates footage of the original kills too, and then re-parses the essence of those scenes for the present. The film is thus designed to invite comparison, to allow the audience to compare and contrast murders, and therefore to understand the killer's reasons for re-staging the old crimes
Some of the re-parsing here is authentically clever and timely too. In the original film, two high school band members, after playing in the orchestra at the prom, go out to lover’s lane. The Phantom Killer shows up, and attacks the trombone player with her own musical instrument (a metaphor for the thrust and retract of sexual intercourse).
Fully updated to 2014, the remake finds two band members again heading out on a date late at night, and this time, the victims are gay. But the scene goes deeper than this surface description indicates. All around the victims lay cast-off corporate signs (for drug stores, shops, and the like), and taken together, they relate an important message about the killer and his purpose, at least if anyone bothers to read them. Look for the word LEGACY in one composition, for example.
The s cene also toys with the audience, prominently displaying signs that read “Dead End,” or other messages about the danger lurking nearby, unnoticed. This scene is a crystallization of the movie’s entire approach to its subject matter. To wit, the remake has selected sequences from the original film as symbols of that story, and then revealed how -- in explicit accordance with the dialogue – “the past is alive, all around us.”
Those symbols of the past, from the 1970s movie (which is played yearly at a drive-in), to the secrets of Jami’s past, take on new, frightening shapes in 2014. The lettering in the junkyard isn’t just junk, but bits and pieces of the past, still alive -- still meaningful -- but unnoticed in our present.
Given such a cerebral approach, it pays to watch the film closely. For example, there is a montage here, early on, of the town of Texarkana “dreading” sundown. People lock their doors, hammer boards over their windows, and retreat inside as afternoon turns to dusk. There are new shots, I believe, in the montage, and shots straight out of the Pierce film as well. This scrambling of time periods is another way to visually remind the audience that the past is alive, and all around us. For some, sixty (or thirty…) years have passed without event, and for some, that span has been spent in seething rage and resentment.
In terms of straight-up horror, the murder sequences in the remake are staged with glorious, brutal abandon. One scene involving a man coming home from war (and remember, the original film took place just eight months after the end of World War II….) and meeting with his lover at a motel, ends with a harrowing chase, and, literally, bloody murder.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon also does an extraordinary job of rethinking and re-staging the Dawn Wells/Helen Reed attack. The rough confines of the scene are repeated (a bullet through a farmhouse window, and a terrifying pursuit through the corn field), but the details are quite different, especially in regards to Gary Cole’s character and his final moments on this Earth.
For a film that moves with such smooth confidence and brutal intelligence for so much of its running time, it is a downright shame that the climax ultimately doesn’t live up to the superior set pieces that punctuate The Town that Dreaded Sundown.
The talking killer cliché is one that has been over-used since the Scream films, and ultimately in movies of this type, it is more powerful – and more genuinely terrifying -- to be afforded no clear understandable psychological or human motive for a crime spree like the Phantom’s. The idea that makes the original so scary (and which makes the 1946 crimes so scary) is that we never knew “the why” or the “whom.” This sequel, ultimately, must perform back-flips of exposition regarding the contemporary killings when it might have been better, simply, not to know.
My assessment of the finale does not mean that The Town that Dreaded Sundown is a bad film. It’s actually very good, very well-made. It just doesn’t stick the landing.
What makes up for this deficit, perhaps, is the quality of the set-pieces and the symbolic thinking that clearly went into the film's structure. Also, as a fan of Charles B. Pierce, I must confess I felt a lump in my throat in the scenes involving his son. His boy has never gotten over the death of his father and “best friend” and in some way, this aspect of the tale feels like a love letter to the regional filmmaker, who accomplished so much with so little. This sub-plot fits in with the film’s leitmotif as well, that the past is alive and all around us. Pierce’s son wants so much to live in that past, with his father, that his life now is something of a shambles.
Long-time horror fans wince each time a new remake of a classic is announced, and sometimes for good reason (A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010, j’accuse), but The Town that Dreaded Sundown is not one of the ones that will debauch you.
Instead, the film cherishes the 1976 original and its legendary maker, and suggests that the sun will not fall on this fearsome Texarkana legend for years to come.
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
The Bermuda Triangle Craze of the mid-1970s is the subject of my latest article at Flashbak
Here's a link and url: (http://flashbak.com/five-pop-culture-memories-of-the-bermuda-triangle-craze-of-the-1970s-25668/)
"If Bigfoot was the great boogeyman of the 1970s, then the Bermuda Triangle (or sometimes Devil’s Triangle) was, perhaps, a close second.
The Bermuda Triangle is a region of the North Atlantic Ocean where many ships and planes have allegedly disappeared without a trace, for decades. Stories of such vanishings were actually reported as early as 1950, but it was during the seventies that pop culture’s obsession with this “cursed” area of the sea really went off the scale. This may have been because of author Charlie Berlitz’s “bestselling saga of unexplained disappearances,” The Bermuda Triangle, which was published in 1969 and re-ignited interest in the Bermuda Triangle while selling more than twenty million copies.
By the mid-point of the disco decade, the Bermuda Triangle was being used as a plot-point on kids’ TV series such as Jabberjaw (“The Bermuda Triangle Tangle”) as well on prime television. On the latter front, Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman got into the act as well with “The Bermuda Triangle Crisis.”
Below are five pop culture memories of the Bermuda Triangle Craze of the 1970s."
Charles B. Pierce -- the director who brought the world the box office hit The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972) -- also gave audiences another beloved horror picture in the same decade: the recently re-made and re-imagined The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976).
A fictionalized, semi-documentary telling of the Moonlight or Phantom Murders that went unsolved in Texarkana in the immediate post-World War II era, this bicentennial year film has earned praise from horror aficionados over the decades. In part this praise is due to the disturbing nature of the movie's unforgettable boogeyman: an anonymous killer who attacks unsuspecting victims at remote lover’s lanes by moonlight, and who dons a white sack over his head (much as Jason Voorhees would in Friday the 13th Part II ).
The mysterious killer in the film not only escapes detection and capture, but undertakes a genuinely harrowing reign of terror. Pierce, adopting a blunt approach to the action, spares the audience nothing.
Accordingly, at least two sequences in The Town that Dreaded Sundown -- one involving a trombone as a murder weapon (!) and the other featuring Gilligan’s Island’s Dawn Wells as the prospective victim -- have achieved cult status today. They are effective genre set-pieces that raise one’s blood pressure significantly.
Uniquely, The Town that Dreaded Sundown also appears to forecast both the 1980s slasher movement in the genre and the 1990s obsession with serial killers. The boogeyman in Town is a strange combination of both types: a masked, murderous assailant who can be anywhere at any time, and a man -- sans “uniform” -- who can move freely about in Texarkana.
That double-identity lends the film a significant degree of paranoia, since one is never certain if the killer hails from the police force or local government, or is otherwise nearby as Texas Ranger Morales (Ben Johnson) outlines his plans to catch the criminal. Clearly, the killer is someone who knows his way around the town, and regularly visits local establishments, like a restaurant seen late in the picture. Like Norman Bates in Psycho (1960), this madman can hide in plain sight.
A bizarrely-paced movie of highs and lows which pauses for some imbecilic humor and slow-motion car chases, The Town that Dreaded Sundown nonetheless impresses, even today, because of its strong period details, and its compelling story of a killer who emerges from nowhere to terrify a community and then, creepily, recedes to nowhere, leaving trauma and terror in his wake.
It's likely we will never know the identity of this real-life killer, and yet the movie places him squarely and prominently in the collective imagination, even attending a screening of the film itself...seeing his life's "work" reflected on the silver screen. In this way, Pierce ties the events of 1946 to the year 1976, and suggests that horror still dwells when the sun goes down.
“Texarkana looked normal during daytime hours...but everyone dreaded sundown.”
Just eight months after the end of World War II, on March 3, 1946, a Phantom Killer appears in Texarkana, attacking two youngsters at a local lover’s lane.
The killer goes silent until March 24, when he strikes again, this time murdering Emma Lou Cook and Howard Turner on a rainy night.
While the Texarakana police, including Deputy Norm Ramsey (Andrew Prine) attempt to make sense of the killer’s motives and movements, legendary “lone wolf” Texas Ranger J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson) arrives in town to take over the investigation.
Meanwhile, the Phantom Killer becomes the subject of national news as the residents hide behind locked doors after sundown, and the killer strikes again, this time attacking a high school band player with a trombone and knife on the night of April 14.
Eventually, the Phantom Killer’s trail goes cold, but Morales and Ramsey get one last, unexpected chance to apprehend him…
“The fear spread like cancer…”
It looks like The Town that Dreaded Sundown actually got its title from Pierce’s The Legend of Boggy Creek. In that film, the narrator, Vern Stierman notes that the town of Fouke is fine by daytime. But by sundown it becomes a place of fear because of the Fouke Monster.
Stierman's vocal services are also retained for The Town that Dreaded Sundown, and he repeats, almost verbatim that (good) line of dialogue about the fading of the light, and the fear that comes with the shroud of darkness.
Although based on a true story, The Town that Dreaded Sundown also captures a slow-dawning sense of uneasiness, circa 1946, in the American psyche. World War II had been won and soldiers were returning home, buying houses and attending college, thanks to the passage of the G.I. Bill.
But the end of World War did not mean, necessarily, the end of anxiety.
For example, Russia was developing and testing atomic bombs as early as 1949 and there was a feeling of marking time's passage, perhaps, until the next crisis emerged..such as the Korean War.
One might describe this feeling as waiting for the other shoe to drop.
That’s the very fear that feels almost tangible in The Town that Dreaded Sundown: a knowledge that a killer will strike again, but without knowing when or where. Thus the film thrives on the same sort of anticipatory anxiety that we saw again in the nineties, and in particular, in the works of Chris Carter. All exterior signs indicated that times were good, but fears nonetheless lurked underneath the surface. Both time periods, in a sense, represented retrenchment, either after either World War, or the Cold War, as focus returned to the homeland, and the problems brewing and growing there.
One idea dropped from (the good) 2014 remake of The Town that Dreaded Sundown is that the killer in Texarkana is some brand of sexually frustrated psycho. For example, he “chews” on his female victims, leaving bite-marks on their flesh, including their breasts.
And the film’s famous trombone death is symbolic, no doubt of the sexual act. In this scene, the killer straps a knife to the end of a trombone, and then keeps stabbing the knife (and trombone) into the back of a female victim, then retracting it, and doing it again.
It’s no stretch or over-reading to see the repetitive thrusting and retraction of the trombone/knife as a coded visualization for an act that the killer himself can’t seem to complete successfully: sexual intercourse. Today, the scene plays as weird and almost a little comical, and yet if one considers the imagery, it’s clear that the trombone is standing in for something…else.
Later, the film goes further, describing the character’s pathology. He’s a “sadist…motivated by a strong sexual drive,” according to the police. The killer targets desirable women he sees at the remote lover's lane locations. He doesn't sexually penetrate his victims, however, likely because he can't do so, for psychological reasons. He's impotent.
More harrowing in a conventional sense than the strange trombone scene is the set-piece in which Dawn Wells (as Texarkana local Helen Reed) is attacked in her home at night by the Phantom Killer.
He shoots Helen's husband through a closed window, shattering the glass. She runs to the telephone to call for help, and he fires again. This time the bullet perforates the side of her face, and she falls to the floor, attempting to crawl away from her assailant.
This scene is alarming not merely because of the extreme violence portrayed on screen and the likability of the victim, but because Wells’ character -- even after being catastrophically wounded -- must continue to fight for her life. The terror doesn’t end quickly for her, and as viewers, we root for her to escape the killer alive.
The trombone scene and the Dawn Wells sequence make The Town that Dreaded Sundown truly horrific on a gut, visceral level, but the film’s sense of terror runs deeper than either set-piece suggests.
In particular, the killer is often identified on screen only by the style of his boots. We never see a face to go with them.
At one point in the film, those tell-tale boots are seen on a restaurant patron, one sitting very near Morales. The killer has been listening all along to the officer's strategies and plans, and has not been noticed. This fact is chilling. It means that the killer can move in and out of polite society with impunity, without a second glance, even.
The punctuation for this chilling thought is the film’s final, lingering scare. A line queues up to see The Town that Dreaded Sundown -- this very film -- and we see those trademarks boots again, walking on the sidewalk outside the theater.
The notion is, explicitly, that the killer is still out there, still unidentified. Half-a-century after his killing spree, the wolf is still hidden among the sheep, among the flock.
This final gut punch isn’t simply chilling, it suggests Charles B. Pierce’s cerebral, even nimble approach to the material.
To wit: The Town that Dreaded Sundown is a retelling of a true story. The film goes back to the beginning of the Phantom Killings in 1946, and then chronicles the time period right up to and including the premiere of the film itself.
In other words, Pierce writes his own film into the legend, on screen, so that it becomes the de facto myth or version of the tale.
So the movie is "meta" and post-modern in nature well before Scream (1996) was even a glimmer in Kevin Williamson’s eyes...which is no doubt why the scribe referenced it in that popular film. To its credit, the Town remake of 2014 plays gamely with this aspect of the story in a way that honors the original and escalates the self-reflexive aspects of it.
The last time I watched The Town that Dreaded Sundown was likely during the preparation of my text Horror Films of the 1970s, and so I must assume from the timing that I viewed a kind of faded VHS copy. For this screening, I watched an HD streaming version, and the film looked absolutely incredible, gorgeous even. The period details are crisp and attentively-drawn, and part of the film’s appeal is our absolute immersion in 1946 Texarkana. For a low-budget film, this remains a remarkable feat, to so convincingly excavate a long gone time period.
Sadly, all of Pierce’s cerebral, visceral and period work is undercut, at least to some degree by the strange moments that lurch towards cheesy comedy. Pierce himself plays a character called Spark Plug (a policeman), who dresses up in drag in an attempt to catch the killer. Virtually every scene involving the character is hokey and dumb and off-putting.
And the film’s third act foray into a Bonnie and Clyde (1967)-styled car chase is equally ill-advised. It's Smokey and the Bandit...forties style!
Pierce must have known that his movie had no real ending and been at something of a loss. After all, the Phantom Killer was never caught, let alone identified. So the director attempts to distract from the lack of an effective denouement with slow-motion stunts that would fit better in a Hal Needham flick than in a horror movie. The misdirection may be amusing, but it is hardly successful.
Despite the tonal missteps, one could make a case that The Town that Dreaded Sundown is Pierce’s most accomplished horror film, though The Evictors (1979) -- which I’ll review here on the blog this Friday -- would have to run neck and neck with it. But Town is more well-known, for certain, and the scenes featuring the killer on the prowl remain the stuff of nightmares.
On Thursday, I take a look at the new remake, 2014’s The Town that Dreaded Sundown.