Thursday, July 14, 2016
The Films of 1976: The Town that Dreaded Sundown
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) 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.