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Friday, October 3, 2014

The Town that Dreaded Sundown – The Horror Film that Wasn’t

The 1976 horror film The Town that Dreaded Sundown is an interesting film but never quite becomes what it intends to be – scary.  It spends too much time doing other things.  It’s distracted and rambling, loses the point at several places.  That’s what happens in real life, yes, but in storytelling it’s unforgivable.

The movie is based (loosely) on a series of brutal attacks in and around Texarkana in the months just
after the end of World War II.  Over the course of several months eight people were assaulted – five of the victims died, but three managed to survive the attacks – by a masked individual.  And though the police and sheriff departments, along with the Texas Rangers, scoured the county, interviewed hundreds of people, tracked down clues and leads, the “phantom,” as he was dubbed in the papers, was never apprehended, never even identified.

The attacks just stopped.  Perhaps the “phantom” moved on to another city, perhaps he died, perhaps he was arrested and incarcerated for different crime. No one knows why he stopped.  No one knows why he started, either.  There are a lot of unknowns. And if the movie had dealt with the horror of the unknown, it could have been a decent little film. 

Indeed, there are portions of the movie that do this and almost succeed.  Director Charles B. Pierce used a no-frills, no flashy special effects style of filmmaking -forced upon him by a small budget- to craft a film that’s almost documentary in form, complete with Dragnet style voice over narration.  He also hired several people from Texarkana to fill out the cast and the extras. Pierce captured something of a neo-realism that could have been effective in creating a fearful, anxious small town.

But the film continually veers off course into dull police procedural work, or into bumbling Barney Fife routines, destroying the rhythm and flow of what was intended to be a horror film.  It never comes together.  It does not frighten.

I did not immediately recognize her, Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island (Dawn Wells) was in this film.

Later this month (October 16) a “meta-remake” is set to be released.  

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