The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)
THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN
WRITER: Screenplay by Earl E. Smith
DIRECTOR: Charles B. Pierce
STARRING: Ben Johnson as Captain J.D. Morales
Andrew Prine as Deputy Norman Ramsey
Charles B. Pierce as Patrolman A.C. Benson
Dawn Wells as Helen Reed
QUICK CUT: Very loosely based on a true story, when the small town of Texarkana is terrorised by one of the first serial killers in this country, people give in to fear, while the cops stumble around trying to solve the case before things get even worse.
Deputy Ramsey - Our lead investigator and main character for much of the movie. He's smart, driven, and determined to find out who is killing people in his town. He's a little ahead of the curve and does more to find out who the killer is than most people.
J.D. Morales - The 'Lone Wolf' of the Texas Rangers, sent in by the group when the killings reach a certain point and they want to close the case as quickly as possible.
The Phantom Killer - The colourful moniker that Morales gives the killer roaming the streets. He's smart, smarter than probably anyone else in the town, with a cruel, creative streak in him, and a need to kill.
THE GUTS: Happy October, Triskelions! Now, I know what you're thinking; Jason! you say. Jason! It's October 1st! You've been reviewing classic horror on the 1st of every month this year! SURELY that means you are finally going to tackle one of THE classics, Halloween, right?
Yeeeah, that may've been the plan, but I literally just got the new shiny boxed set from Scream! Factory. On Blu-Ray. Which I can't really work up reviews from. And I don't have Halloween on DVD. And can't quite convince my wallet right now to buy a cheap copy. All of which leads to me postponing Halloween for now.
Instead, I've chosen to take a look at another movie that's pretty well known, but still more of a cult film than most others I've touched on for the classics; The Town that Dreaded Sundown.
Now, here's a funny story, and my entire justification for this. I had a friend who was hugely into the Halloween movies, and he loved trying to make his own sequels back in high school with a VHS camcorder. Because of THIS movie though, another favourite of his, he called his first one, Halloween 6: Sundown, as an homage. This led to him spinning off future ideas into his own series of flicks called Sundown, with tenuous Michael Meyers connections.
So, there's at least SOME basis of a personal connection that actually ties this all together in a weird not really kinda way! Now, on with the movie!
We kick things off in 1946, shortly after the second World War, in the town of Texarkana, which is trying to rebuild itself and the local economy after the war, and things are going well! Yay, happy movie!
So, cue the person stalking the streets to ruin everything, and a promise that this is TOTALLY a true story, but the names have been changed to protect the bullcrap. At the end of the day, this movie *does* stick to the gist of the case fairly closely, and a LOT more closely that other 'based on true events' movies.
We drift to a couple enjoying a nice night out in their car, as the guy tries to get a little bit gropey, as the girlfriend gets a little bit tropey by hearing the usual something outside. And surprise! There is something!
Thanks to Hooded Justice's hasty repair job, the car naturally won't start. And not just because it's out of gas! A window is quickly smashed, and Sammy dragged from the car, leaving Linda Mae to wait.
She doesn't have to wait too long though, as her endless loud screaming keeps the killer nearby, watching through the window, until he smashes in again and grabs her too. We never see what happens, but as the credits roll, they reveal she's still very much alive, if a bit scratched and traumatised.
A classic setup, done fairly well. Maybe a bit too piercing on the screaming, but it was still good screaming.
As the cops arrive, after a passing driver finds Linda Mae, we find out they're miraculously both alive, making me disappointed and need to update the body count...
Once the doctor looks them over, they rule out rape, and really the only thing that happened to them is that...they were chewed upon. Geeze, someone needs to learn how to do a proper hickey. But seriously, chewing? That's...weird. And I watch Hannibal, folks. He at least finishes his meals.
The police gather to talk things out, and sensibily decide to warn kids to try not to park anywhere too creepy. So, the guys from Jaws aren't running this show, at least.
Oh, we also meet a cop named Sparkplug. And I'm not going to pass that opportunity up.
Three weeks later, Deputy Ramsey is worried something might happen, so goes driving around in the pouring rain. While doing that, he hears gunshots and rushes to investigate.
He quickly finds an empty car, but more shots ring out. After calling in his location and checking on backup, he rushes deeper into the woods to see what's going on.
Ramsey finds the bodies of the couple from the car, and stumbles around trying to find the guy who did this, all while said guy drives off.
With the town in a panic, they naturally arm up and lock things down tight, while Texas sends in their best ranger, the Lone Wolf, J.D. Morales. His brilliant plan is to catch the killer. Or kill him. Well, thanks Walker, we couldn't have thought of that without ya.
Morales quickly takes charge, and teams up with Ramsey to get things done. On top of that, they assign Sparkplug to be his driver and comedic relief. Of course they do.
Things move along, and Morales comes up with a plan to set up a number of decoys, which Sparkplug jumps at the chance to be. Little did he realise that the 'decoy' part of it meant dressing up as the woman on a date.
Meanwhile, a prom is going on elsewhere, and I'm sure there's targets there that the masked mechanic...er, Phantom, will be more interested in than cops in drag.
Sure enough, a trombone player from the band and her boyfriend head off to a makeout spot in the middle of town, figuring that'll be safer than the middle of nowhere spots everyone else got attacked in.
The thing that's hanging me up is why the killer strikes every 21 days. Not only is there no explanation, but how did Ramsey come up with it? Okay, fine, after the two killings, I can see it. But what made him, after the first attack, think three weeks later, tonight's the night? It just doesn't add up. He needed at least that second attack to find that kind of pattern.
Anyways, like I was saying, it's not long before the killer appears and grapples with Roy's car and drags him out of it, leaving Peggy to crash into some bushes. She watches as her boyfriend gets his skull bashed in. She might've even escaped if she hadn't shouted out at that point...
But instead she gets grabbed and dragged back to her boyfriend struggling to recover from his killer headache. The killer ties her to a tree and makes her watch as Roy tries to escape and gets shot in the process.
After that, the killer picks up Peggy's trombone and plays around with it for a bit, and I can't quite decide if this is hilarious of really creepy. It straddles that line perfectly. It SHOULD be hilarious, watching a guy in a hood fiddle with a trombone, play a few notes, and act like he's never seen one before, but instead there's JUST the right hint of menace to the proceedings.
Which takes that perfectly dark turn when he ties a knife to the sliding part of it, and uses that to stab Peggy repeatedly, as he mock plays the instrument. Definite points for creativity.
After getting a tip by a guy that was robbed by someone else, the cops are on their way to an armed robbery and car theft. We head squarely down Red Herring lane as the car thief gets IDed as the one who did the robbery, and he confesses to being the Phantom. No one's buying it, though.
Least of all, the Phantom himself! Who has taken a liking to Mary Anne. Who knew he's a Gilligan's Island fan? I thought they said he was highly intelligent...
Having listened in on the cops talking about him, the Phantom has changed his pattern, following the girl home to have his way with her, instead of looking for girls riding in cars with boys.
The Phantom shoots Mary Anne a few times while she's on the phone with the operator, but she manages to not die immediately, and crawl away. Despite being shot in the face.
She crawls out into the fields behind her house, while the Child of the Corn stalks her through the...uh, stalks. Somehow, wandering through the dark, in a cornfield, trying to find a girl doesn't seem like the Phantom's best laid plan.
Helen somehow makes her way to another farmhouse and when they wake up to discover the girl on their front lawn, the killer grumbles and slinks back into the shadows.
Naturally, this makes everyone even more paranoid, the town shuts down completely at night, and the manhunt intensifies as the dates he should have attacked on come and go.
I love the poor cops being called out for every tiny noise, typified by a brief scene of a panicked housewife pointing at a noise in the dark...until a cat comes bounding out of a trashcan. Best surprise ever.
Ramsey and Morales are driving around, dejected after months of nothing being done, and Morales says if they catch this guy, it's gonna be a miracle.
So, cue one miracle as a call comes over for a stolen car, the exact description of the car Ramsey saw the Phantom driving off in towards the start of the film.
They rush to the abandoned car, and creep around a sand pit until the Phantom appears. Say, does he wear the mask ALL the time? Just in case? Was he wearing it while driving? Ah well.
Our killer gets chased around, until he comes upon some handy railroad tracks and a train passing by. He ducks to the other side just as its chugging through, and the train blocks the pursuit of the Lone Wolf and cub.
They try shooting at him through the train's wheels, hoping for a lucky shot, and eventually Morales scores one in the guy's leg.
Yay! They're gonna catch him! Just as soon as the train...gets...gets passed. And...and he's gone. But there's a blood trail! They can...no? Hunting dogs? Nothing?
So uh...he's just gonna escape? Into the woods and swamps? Does he become the creature from Boggy Creek and Sparkplug continues his search there?
I...guess that's an ending, as the Phantom hobbles off into the sunset, and lives happily ever after.
Video: Shout! Factory typically does a solid job on their releases, and Sundown's not bad, but being from a quickly made, tossed into drive-ins, and forgotten about cult movie...well, they didn't have the best to work with. A lot of the movie is very dark, too dark, but for what it is, and when it's from, I guess it's bearable.
Audio: A lot better than the video, as it's a pretty simple movie with a simple story, and solidly delivered via a mono track.
Sound Bite: "Next thing you know, he'll kill somebody in police headquarters!" Morales, you *still* probably couldn't catch the guy.
Body Count: A small count, with a lot of bodies that SHOULD be on this list, oops no! Never mind! They lived!
1 - 22 minutes in, and Deputy Ramsey finds a dead guy in a ditch. Finally.
2 - After a little more stumbling through the woods, Ramsey finds the guy's girlfriend chewed on and tied to a tree.
3 - Roy Allen gets yanked out of his car, rolled around the dirt, and his head smashed in, then finally shot
4 - And Peggy gets done in with her modified trombone.
5 - Mary Anne's boyfriend meets a sudden demise after just appearing in the film when he gets shot in the back of the head by the killer.
Best Corpse: How do you not go with "stabbed to death by a trombone"? That might win the best death of the year.
Blood Type - C-: This movie relies more upon the suspense and tension, than actual blood and gore. Still, there's some good moments, and when Mary Anne gets shot in the face, they pull off a decent effect there.
Sex Appeal: They tease around the idea, but never go there.
Drink Up! Whenever the Phantom Killer gets away.
Movie Reivew: Now, sharp eyed readers are gonna notice this isn't really a full on horror movie, but it is most definitely a drive-in movie. It's banking on that sense of danger, that idea of someone just outside your window, using the 'couple in a car' trope that is so prevalent in movies designed to be shown specifically when couples are in their cars watching the movie, and even using the highly dubious stamp of 'based on a true story' to heighten that tension. I love drive-in movies like this, for all those reasons, as they're almost designed specifically to work when you're watching a movie from the car. And it's such a precursor to the slashers of the 80s, that I am totally justified in this choice. As a movie though, it's a bit less sucessful. It can never decide between building suspense or the comedy relieft provided by the director himself playing Sparkplug. That whole character just feels too indulgent, and the movie would've been much better without him and the forced humour he brought. You would go from decent stalking scenes to ha ha, cops in drag! That's better suited for a comedy, even if it really happened. You need to present it better than this movie did. On top of all that, since this is based on an unsolved case, the story just kinda sputters and dies when the killer just disappears, leaving you feeling like the movie spent 90 minutes spinning its wheels. What you get is good enough, but we ultimately end up in the middle of nowhere. Two out of five trombone knives.
Entertainment Value: Oh, this is so very 70s. But it's lacking some of that charm my other 70s era movies have in them. The humour is good, but off putting at the same time. The performances are...surprisingly good, from the leads. Even Dawn Wells gives a good show, even though she has like two lines and is ultimately wasted as nothing but someone crawling through corn. But it's still got some good story to it, and is a fun little look back at 70s sensibilities. There's fun here, but at the same time we're just kinda there. I enjoyed my experience, but wanted more from a movie that just didn't try hard enough. Three out of five decoy cops.