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Falling chronologically between The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Halloween (1978), Charles B. Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) is something of a proto-slasher: it uses many of the tropes of slasher films (masked maniac, creative kill scenes, stalking scenarios) but welds them to a more traditional true-crime format. The finished product ends up being a little like a pseudo-documentary, complete with voice-over narrator, but maintains enough horror film qualities to appeal to fans. By comparing the look of the Phantom Killer from The Town That Dreaded Sundown with Jason’s first appearance, Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981), it’s also plain to see how influential the film would be on the genre movies that would follow. Although Pierce’s film would, ultimately, be less influential than either of the landmarks that surrounded it, it’s still a fairly well-made, tense little picture that’s wholly deserving of a resurgence among modern audiences. With a new remake set to open next week, it appears that horror audiences may finally be ready to focus on Texarkana and its mysterious, hooded madman once again.

Based on a true story, The Town That Dreaded Sundown takes place over several months in 1946 and deals with the activities of a serial killer in Texarkana, Arkansas. Beginning with young couples on Lovers’ Lane, the hooded killer would graduate to attacking people in the safety of their own homes before seeming to vanish into thin air. As the attacks increase in sheer viciousness, the citizens of the 40K-strong town begin to hide in their homes, avoiding the nighttime hours like the plague. At first, Deputy Sheriff Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine) does the best he can to catch the elusive maniac but he’s soon forced to hand the case over to a living legend: Captain J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson), widely renowned as the greatest Texas Ranger to walk the earth. Together, Ramsey and Morales try to run to ground a sinister, vicious killer who seems to appear out of nowhere and vanish just as quickly. As the body count rises, the town of Texarkana is left to wonder if they’ll ever know peace and safety again.

In many ways, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a tale of two films (three, actually, but we’ll get to that shortly): a true-crime investigation and a serial killer/slasher film. While the true-crime stuff is interesting, if a little old-fashioned, the serial killer/slasher element is particularly well-done. From his very first attack, where the killer disables a couple’s car while they sit there in stunned fear, to the climatic scene where Ramsey and Morales chase him by the railroad tracks, the Phantom Killer (Bud Davis) is one helluva great bad guy. While his initial attacks involve firearms, the killer really gets creative when he ties a knife to the end of a trombone and proceeds to “play” the instrument, repeatedly jabbing the knife into his victim’s back: it’s a nasty, thoroughly gratuitous scene but it’s also pretty genius and well-staged, inexplicably reminding of the similar method of murder in Michael Powell’s legendary Peeping Tom (1960). Like the best horror/slasher villains, the Phantom Killer is a mute, absolutely menacing presence: it’s pretty easy to take one look at the character and see the direct line of inspiration to the appearance of Jason Voorhees in the second Friday the 13th film, although elements of the Phantom Killer’s appearance and behavior can be found in at least a bakers’ dozen other horror films.

On the “good guy” side, Andrew Prine does a great job as the hard-charging Deputy, although I must admit to being slightly underwhelmed by Johnson’s characteristically gruff performance: there isn’t much shade or nuance to Captain Morales, although not being familiar with the actual person probably makes the case a little moot…after all, it’s quite possible that Morales was exactly as Johnson portrayed him. Nonetheless, I found myself gravitating towards Prine much more than I did to Johnson’s throwback “old school lawman.” The rest of the cast is decent, if a bit anonymous, although many of the supporting roles have a decidedly amateurish tinge to them that pretty synonymous with low-budget films of that era.

The single biggest problem with the film, minor quibbles aside, comes from any of the scenes involving director Charles B. Pierce, who plays police office A.C. Benson. While it’s always a bit problematic having the director pop up in his own film (actors directing themselves, ala Eastwood, Gibson or the like, are entirely different scenarios), it’s made even worse when the character is obnoxious and unnecessary. In a nutshell, the character of Benson exists solely to provide the comic relief that the film so desperately does not need: any scene featuring Pierce is pitched at absolutely screwball levels and sits at odds with anything else in the movie. Without the Benson/Pierce scenes, The Town That Dreaded Sundown plays as an effective, straight-faced thriller. With the scenes, however, the film often takes on the quality of a farce, which has the unintended effect of making the rest of the material seem slight and silly. In a way, it’s similar to the big complaint I have from the original version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956): the cheesy wraparound storyline, added later, severely dilutes the impact of the rest of the film. Similarly, the goofy comedy scenes not only don’t add anything to the film, they actually take away much of the film’s sustained mood and impact, at the very least scuttling any of the serious scenes that directly lead-in to or follow the Benson scenes. In the case of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, at least we can blame the studio for unnecessarily interfering: the tampering in Pierce’s film appears to be solely his fault. Regardless of the ultimate reason behind it, Pierce’s performance as Benson ends up being the film’s biggest problem and serves as a pretty substantial black eye.

It’s a shame, too, because the film that surrounds the absurd comic scenes is actually quite good, if somewhat less than relevatory. The setting and mood are strong, for the most part, the action is tense, the killer is frightening and the setpieces are well-staged. While I’m not normally a fan of remakes, finding them to be largely unnecessary, I can’t help but feel that the upcoming remake of Pierce’s film might not be such a bad idea. There’s a really intriguing, frightening idea to be found here: a film that focuses solely on the darker aspects and jettisons the buffoonish comic relief certainly stands a chance of being successful…tonal consistency would, at the very least, be a significant improvement over the original. If you can look past the film’s poorly executed attempts at levity, however, much of it possesses a raw, feral power that should certainly appeal to fans of “classic” slasher” films, as well as true-crime buffs. If only Pierce could have stayed behind the camera, this might have ended up as an unmitigated classic instead of a near miss: nonetheless, this is one film that you definitely shouldn’t dread.

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