Cinema Sunday: The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

sundown

 

Title: The Town That Dreaded Sundown

Distributor: AIP

Writer: Earl E. Smith

Director: Charles B. Pierce

Producers: Charles B. Pierce and Samuel Z. Arkoff

Starring: Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Dawn Wells, Bud Davis

Released: December 24th, 1976

MPAA: R

 

By the time everyone reads this review, I’ll have been out in Pittsburgh, at my first ever Monsterbash! The Bash is a horror/sci-fi convention for nuts like me that grew up on old-school horror and sci-fi movies. You know, those flicks shown either late at night or on a Saturday after noon by some “horror host” such as Uncle Ted, the one I watched host a show called “Monstermania,” that showed everything from Godzilla movies to the classic Universal films from the 1930’s and 1940’s. I remember staying up late (past the time I was allowed – sorry, Mom!), on Friday night, or on Saturday afternoon, and watching these scary flicks.

OK, now let me just say that I’ve wanted to check out this movie for quite sometime, and thanks to Netflix, I can now say that I have. I won’t get into the specifics until after the review, but I will say that any film with Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island, is OK by me. Alright, on to the movie…

 

Town That Dreaded Sundown

 

The film begins with some narrative by a voice (Vern Stierman), that informs us that the town of Texarkana is a quiet little town that has many men returning from WWII, and trying to live a normal life. We watch across town, as people live their lives, and in one case, we see a wedding ceremony ending. In this year, 1946, there is also something sinister walking the streets. We then see only the legs and feet of someone (presumably the killer), as he makes his way to a scene downtown, where some young people are congregating. As two of the young people (Linda Mae Jenkins, Sammy Fuller)  leave, they head to a remote area to go “parking.” As they arrive, the young lady is less than cooperative, but we soon see that someone is creeping around the car. Suddenly, a hooded figure appears, and pops the hood of the car, then rips out the distributor. The young man tries to start the car, but no go. The woman shrieks in fear, and the hooded man pulls the young man out of the car through the window (after smashing it with a crowbar). He beats the young man savagely, and then pulls the woman out of the car.

 

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The next morning, we see the young woman, bloody and beaten to a pulp, trying to get to the freeway. A car drives by and sees her, then the police arrive, along with te ambulance. We see Deputy Ramsey (Andrew Prine – image above), as he radios back to the station to give them some info about the incident. We then see the sheriff and Deputy Ramsey at the hospital, attempting to get some answers from the victims. The doctor tells them that it’s too early for that, because of sedation and trauma. The doctor does tell them that the victims were beaten badly, and that the woman was even bitten several times!

Later, the Captain asks the Deputy and the sheriff what they have, and they tell him they’ve got nothing. Another night falls, and our narrator explains the lives of two more young people. The two have an argument, but settle their differences quickly. The two then head to a spot to “get it on” and we see  Deputy Ramsey patrolling some of the local haunts. As he leaves the vehicle for a moment, he hears two gunshots nearby, and heads in that direction. He calls for backup, and parks near a car stopped on a gravel road. He approaches it with caution, but finds no one inside. Two more shots ring out close by, and he runs towards them (after calling for backup again). As he checks out the nearby brush, he finds the young man from the car, with a gunshot wound to the head. Close by, the young woman is tied to a tree, also shot dead. As Deputy Ramsey looks on in horror, he hears footsteps, and pursues the person. He only sees a dark figure, as it jumps into a car, and flees the scene.

 

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Within a few days, gun stores are sold out of weapons, and hardware stores cannot keep up with the sales of locks. Deputy Ramsey and the Sheriff call the capital for help, and they’re told that they’ll send the best investigator in the country. Captain J. D. Morales (Ben Johnson – image above), of the Texas rangers is on his way, and they head out to meet him. They meet him at the train station, and then head over to the station to discuss the operation. Ramsey teams up with Morales, and the two begin a whole new investigation into the murders.  Speaking of the murders, they seem to have taken place exactly 21 days apart, and Morales thinks this might be something the killer is doing intentionally. They head out to the crime scenes to check for anything they might have missed. They also set up curfews, warn citizens of the trouble. Of course, they get a bunch of nuts that confess to the killings, but Morales knows they’re full of it.

The cops get an idea to set up some decoys to try to catch the killer. They have male officers dress in drag (yes, really – image below), and sit in parked cars with other officers, trying to tempt the killer. Morales tells them to stay alert, and be ready for anything. Meanwhile, in town, the local students are having a dance, but the police don’t seem to be worried about them for some reason. The dance will go on until two or so, and they figure they can wait until then to make sure they get home OK. A couple leaves a bit later than the others, and this will of course be their undoing. They pack up the car, as the girl is in the band (a trombone player), and then head for a “make out” session before curfew. The two are interrupted by the “Phantom” as he brutally attacks them both. He beats the young man to a pulp, then chases the girl into the woods. He drags her back to the car (and her boyfriend), and ties her to a tree. He then fastens a knife to the end of her trombone, and belts out a “tune,” stabbing her countless times.

 

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The next day, Morales, Ramsey, and a few other policemen, along with some local government officials, are having dinner, and discussing the case. A psychiatrist tells them that they don’t have much of a chance to catch him, but Morales isn’t having any of that nonsense. As the men continue to discuss things, someone gets up from the table, and leaves. The others don’t even give the person a look, but we see the boots of the person, and they look like those of the killer. The following day, a man tells the police that a man jumped in his car, and threatened to kill him, just as he had the others in the area, if he didn’t give him a ride. The police then get a call from a store owner that it was robbed, and the perpetrator matches the description that the man gave earlier during his talk with the police. The police speed to the scene, and see the man leaving. A chase scene follows, and then they eventually catch him. The guy claims to be the “Phantom” but he’s obviously not (he seems like an imbecile).

 

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A few weeks later, and a woman, Helen Reed (Dawn Wells), is leaving the grocery store, and a man pulls up next to her car, and stares at her. She nods at the man, looking at him quizzically, then leaves. Later that day, she’s brushing her hair, while her husband is reading the paper by the window. In an instant, we see the hooded man by the window, aiming a pistol at his head. He pulls the trigger twice, shooting the man in the head. Helen screams, and then sees the hooded man by the back door of the house. He bursts through the screen door, and shoots her twice as well. She manages to survive though, and she crawls to the neighbor’s house for help. The hooded man follows, but by then, the neighbor has a shotgun, and tells his wife to call the police. The hooded man pursues, grabbing a pick axe on his way through the house. He gives up the chase as the dog, plus the neighbor with the shotgun are enough to deter him this night.

 

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The police then ramp up their patrols, but the next scheduled attack comes and goes without any disturbance. One day, Morales and Ramsey are driving around and get a call that a stolen car was found nearby, so they check it out. It’s the car that Deputy Ramsey saw the night of the second murders, and the two men grab shotguns and head out into the wooded area nearby. A nearby sandpit shows some tracks made from boots, and they get the feeling that they’re on to something. As they move around the pits, they see the hooded man atop a hill. Morales shoots at him, but misses. Ramsey and he then take off after the man, but he dives across some railroad tracks just as a train comes by. They shoot between and under the cars and manage to hit him in the leg, but by the time the train passes, he’s gone.

 

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There’s no need to go any further, because essentially, that’s the end of the movie.

 

OK, here are my thoughts:

Alright, this movie has its good points and bad points. First things first, is that they had some foolish comedic scenes in this movie that were just awful. This is part because it’s fact, and partly because I can’t personally stand when horror/suspense films attempt to shoe-horn in comedy. Secondly, the film basically has no ending, and it’s kind of understandable, because this film is loosely based on a true story, where the killer was never caught. Also, the director/producer, Pierce, was in the film as the “keystone cop” Sparkplug. This was a terrible idea, for more than one reason, and his acting was the biggest reason.

The good points were good enough to make the film enjoyable though, and those mostly revolved around the scenes with the killer doing his thing. The scenes were pretty creepy, and when you realize that these murders really happened, and the guy was never caught, it’s even more terrifying. I love when films don’t overdo costumes, like in this one. A simple shirt, pants, and hood, make this guy really menacing, and you won’t even want to imagine coming face to face with this guy. Think about it; most of the really scary horror villains don’t have an overload of make-up in these types of films, they just keep it simple and let the situations creep out the viewers. Speaking of types of films, I think this might be one of the first films you could classify as a “slasher” film. It has all the elements of the more modern films of that genre, for sure. Ben Johnson did a fine job and should be lauded for bringing this film to a higher place than it would have without him. Andrew Prine turned in a pretty good performance as well, so kudos to him.

 

Click here for the trailer!

 

 

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2 comments on “Cinema Sunday: The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

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