TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN
BD - Image B+ Sound B- Extras B+
starring Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Jimmy Clem, Dawn Wells
screenplay by Earl E. Smith
directed by Charles B. Pierce
**½/**** Image B Sound B-
starring Vic Morrow, Michael Parks, Jessica Harper, Sue Ane Langdon
screenplay by Charles B. Pierce, Gary Rusoff, Paul Fisk
directed by Charles B. Pierce
by Jefferson Robbins Charles B. Pierce's 1976 thriller The Town That Dreaded Sundown makes a fetish of breath. The bag-headed killer, ripped from the headlines of 1946 Texarkana, is a mouth-breather, his mask working like a bellows whether he's exerting himself or not. He's announced by his respiring, as when rural housewife Helen Reed (Dawn Wells) ceases brushing her rich black hair to listen for him outside her home. And his most artful, or perhaps comical, kill is executed with a bayonet trombone, stabbing with each exhalation. He's the old stereotype of the heavy-breathing phone pervert writ deadly, shambling up to parked teenagers and taking his jollies as he may. Sexual assault is implicit in his approach but quickly disavowed, although he heavily bites his earliest female victim. An oral compulsion that is sexual but not; a murder that is penetrative rape but not... As scripted, the never-captured Phantom Killer of Texarkana would be a pretty interesting psychological study.
In fact, rewrite or do away with the portentous Vern Stierman narration, hold a few shots a few seconds longer, and what you have is a stab at a Malick pastiche. The Town That Dreaded Sundown is truly a beautifully shot picture under DP James Roberson, whose camera adores the dirt roads and thick bogs in his viewfinder. He glides and cuts among the dancers at a prom, shaping them into little tableaux of hope and promise and melancholy as a prelude to two new deaths. And those cars... The fact that the real "Phantom Killer" of Texarkana plagued local lovers' lanes means Pierce gets to stage his slayings in and around some truly vintage autos, all of them easy on the eyes. (This slasher is so stealthy, he'll sneak up on your car while it's moving.) Yet the beautiful notes are counterpointed by long stretches of vérité-style vacuum, or Hal Needham-lite car stunts, or bits of blundering comedy business by Pierce himself as rageaholic, accident-prone town cop "Sparkplug" Benson. This is where the movie's underlying squareness, its indebtedness to older exploitation forms, bumps problematically into post-giallo psychosexual horror--and each tries to throttle the other. The diluted approach ill-serves the film's best components, like Andrew Prine's performance as Deputy Norman Ramsey, tormented by an early near-miss at capturing the killer; or the tense attack on Helen Reed, which violently scarifies a beautiful woman, sending her staggering incoherently through the night to be rescued. Momentarily, at least, the killer is monstrous because he turns his victim into a monster, too.
More fully formed as a bona fide horror movie, and more adventurous while still feeling a bit airless, is Pierce's The Evictors. Arriving in 1979, it hones the historical-document approach he took in prior films, like The Town That Dreaded Sundown and his beast-hunting chronicle The Legend of Boggy Creek, and it ticks along on a well-constructed fable of stolen legacies and Southern Gothic neurosis written by Pierce, Gary Rusoff, and Paul Fisk. It's 1947, and young New Orleans transplants Ben and Ruth Watkins (Michael Parks and Jessica Harper) move into a too-cheap-to-be-good north Louisiana homestead while he takes on a local mill job. The house, alas, has a history that wasn't disclosed by shady realtor Jake Rudd (Vic Morrow, used sparingly but effectively), and stay-at-home Ruth uncovers it through sepia and black-and-white flashbacks unspooled by neighbours and visitors. Just as past tenants were murdered by a denim-clad stalker, Ruth finds her peace disrupted--but there's room to suspect that she's imagining phantom killers of her own in a spurt of domestic paranoia. The affair creaks a bit en route, much like the house where it's set, and you'll either see the twists coming or be relatively unimpressed once they arrive, but that's no strike against the ambition.
Scream Factory disburses these bits of Pierce's low-budget oeuvre in a fond double-platter package that gives The Town That Dreaded Sundown the Blu-ray spotlight while relegating bonus feature The Evictors to the normally-disposable bundled DVD. The main flick shows its vintage, and that's not unwelcome--perfection is overrated when you're talking about '70s splatter fare. Instead, parent company Shout! treads lightly, with the transfer showcasing grain, intermittent specks, and even a series of long vertical scratches that mar the right side of the 2.40:1, 1080p frame as Morales and his posse mill about the town police station. The Town That Dreaded Sundown converts to HiDef just fine, if you overlook select attempts to compensate for middling focus with edge-enhancement, and the colours on display in Roberson's lensing shine through with a period richness. (The flaws come out in day-for-night scenes, of which there are several.) The picture offers one of those viewing experiences, like American Graffiti, that successfully passes off the '70s for an earlier era.
Over on the DVD, The Evictors is a mite less refined in its 2.35:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer, looking more battered as well as comparatively faded. On the sound front, The Town That Dreaded Sundown works what magic it can with a minimalist DTS-HD MA 2.0 track--actually mono spread over two channels. There's a good share of paperiness to the audio, but though the background bustle and blasts of violence can degrade to a wall of sound, those spikes are relatively few and sort of cathartic when they do arrive. The same criticism applies to The Evictors' DD 2.0 mix over on the DVD, where the wall of sound gets a lot taller. For what it's worth, the DVD version of The Town That Dreaded Sundown is bare of the commentary track and subtitle options afforded on the Blu-ray.
Said yakker, featuring horror-film journalist Justin Beahm interviewing Texarkana scholar Jim Presley, is less about the movie and its making than it is about the "Texarkana Moonlight Murders" that inspired it. Presley paints a picture of the postwar town, which sprawls across the state line, as a violent place underserved by law enforcement and unprepared for attack from a motiveless serial killer. (Unlike the fictional murderer of the film, the real "Phantom Killer" did tend to rape his female victims when circumstance allowed.) The urgency drew Texas Rangers under the command of Manuel "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas, whose presence, in Presley's telling, may have only added to the confusion and changed the killer's pattern.
Production company Red Shirt Pictures does an impressive job with the BD's handful of video-based extras, starting with "Small Town Lawman: An Interview with Actor Andrew Prine" (9 mins., HD). The Jimmy Stewart-ish performer renders the disc's first straightforward assessment of the groundbreaking Pierce: The director "often he didn't know what he was doing, but had the guts and the gumption to proceed forward and learn what was needed." One symptom of Pierce's shortcomings may be the fact that Prine, so he says, scripted the climactic minutes of the film--the killer was never found, so some kind of dramatic resolution was called for. Full of praise for Ben Johnson throughout, Prine particularly recalls shooting that final scene: "Both Ben and I were so hungover, we could hardly turn our heads without fainting....We'd had a wonderful night, I was told." "Survivor Stories: An Interview with Actress Dawn Wells" (5 mins., HD) sees the former Mary Ann relating how she won the role when Pierce, a friend who'd cast her in his 1976 western Winterhawk, asked her to replace an actress who "couldn't carry groceries and talk at the same time." Wells says she sought to interview Katie Starks, the Texarkana survivor on whom her character was based, but was rebuffed. She worries that she overdid her farmhouse attack scene, though almost any viewer would disagree--she's the best of the victims, if that doesn't sound weird. While filming an outdoor segment of that scene, the entire crew drew guns and opened fire to save her from a pit bull that broke its tether...and missed.
"Eye of the Beholder" (12 mins., HD) catches up with cinematographer James Roberson, just twenty-five when he lensed The Town That Dreaded Sundown like an accomplished pro. Similar to Prine, his praise of Pierce is somewhat backhanded, and he's remarkably light on the technical aspects of the four-week, $400,000 shoot. He does, however, give thanks for being allowed license in editing. "The Phantom of Texarkana" is a click-through text-and-picture essay by "regional horror" journalist Brian Albright, offering a respectable bio of Pierce and some insidery production details lacking elsewhere. Turns out there's talk of "American Horror Story"'s Ryan Murphy helming a remake, which is cause for both intrigue and a measure of dread. (Editor's Note: Since the release of this BD, the remake has gone into production with Addison Timlin, Gary Cole, and the late Ed Lauter starring and "Glee"'s Alfonso Gomez-Rejon directing and Murphy producing.) The theatrical trailer is here too, a two-minute HD presentation with respectable old-school crackle in its audio. Follow Jefferson Robbins on Twitter