Monday, July 21, 2003

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

Directed by Charles B. Pierce
Starring Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Dawn Wells, Charles B. Pierce
It’s a shame when a movie’s box art is scarier than the movie itself. The cover art in question: a hooded figure looming over a small town bathed in the orange light of dusk. He looks sort of like if the Elephant Man decided to pull a Leatherface, and one’s mind is filled with ideas of townspeople cowering behind locked doors while the masked madman wreaks havoc in the dark outside.
Unfortunately, the movie itself is more of a cop docudrama than a real horror movie, from the Arkansas-based director of The Legend of Boggy Creek, another horror-docudrama about a hick Bigfoot. TTTDS is set Texarkana in a 1946 that looks a lot like the seventies, although here the filmmakers were no doubt helped by the fact that in the South, decades fly by and not much changes. Anyway, a killer usually only represented by feet attacks a young couple on Lovers’ Lane. For some reason, whenever the film shows youngsters parked on Lovers’ Lane, their activities seem limited to the man gently resting his head on the woman’s lap, as if he’s all tuckered out from a long day of redneckery. Then the masked guy shows up and the man responds by pleading, “You’ve got the wrong car!” which seems like an odd response to having a guy with a burlap bag over his face trying to kill you. Is he expecting the killer to realize his error, apologize, and move on to the correct car?
After two such attacks, the authorities bring in Captain J.D. Morales, the Lone Wolf of the Texas Rangers, so you know that’s good. Morales is played with a complete lack of Hispanicity by aging cowboy Ben Johnson. At this point the movie becomes very well-mannered, with all the cops greeting each other cordially.
Not much happens for a long time, with the cops patiently waiting for more murders. The movie redeems itself a little with one really odd scene in which the killer ties a young woman up to a tree. Then he examines her trombone and mockingly plays it a little. Then, for some reason, he gets the idea to tie his knife to the end, allowing him to simultaneously play the trombone and stab the girl at the same time with every extension of the instrument (I’m sure there’s a technical term for this, but I’m not up on my trombone).
Meanwhile, there’s some comedy relief provided by the dopey deputy, played self-deprecatingly by the director himself. His goofy theme music haunts me.
The movie whips out some slow-motion camerawork towards the end with a comic relief car crash and, even better, a chase between the cops and the killer, who’s witnessed wearing his bag during the day, hanging out in the forest. The cops shoot him in the leg and he takes a slo-mo flip, but he manages to get away after all. The movie then ends with a moment intended to be horrifying, as the audience is left wondering if the killer is among them, by showing a terrifying pair of loafers in line for a movie.
I certainly wouldn’t have thought such a generally mediocre movie would get so much writing out of me.

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