Hooptober 2022 #12: The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

Charles B. Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a platypus of a horror film. Trying to describe this movie sounds schizophrenic. In the most memorable parts of the film, it mimics The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in intensity. For most of the running time, the film functions like a docudrama with law enforcement trying to understand what’s happening in town. Occasionally it transforms into an episode of The Andy Griffith Show. Yet few filmmakers capture the experience of living in the American South quite like Pierce does. All of these different textures allow Pierce to capture both this moment in time and a very specific place.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown centers on a series of unsolved crimes that take place in 1940s Texarkana. A mysterious killer, nicknamed The Phantom, attacks couples in secluded spots every 21 days. The crimes baffle local police and even the addition of a Texas Ranger fails to bring the killer to justice.

Like his previous film The Legend of Boggy Creek, Charles B. Pierce employs an almost documentary style of storytelling. A narrator gives the audience a lot exposition. Scenes have the quality of a recreation. Outside of Ben Johnson’s J.D. Morales, there’s a wooden quality to the performances because everything feels so staged. However, Pierce knows how to stage a scene. The long scenes where cops talk about the attacks, a fan spins overhead giving the scene some visual interest. The prom sequence carries a deeply nostalgic feeling to it of lost innocence.

Then there’s the attack sequences with The Phantom. When the first scene was over with the visceral quality of its violence, I wondered why didn’t talk more about this film. Pierce gets a lot out of this entity just moving silently through a frame. He kills without impunity and eventually just vanished. The Phantom in this is clearly an early model of all the slashers that would come after him. Watching some of these scenes, it reminded me of the Zodiac killings and wonder if David Fincher took some inspiration from The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Then again it may be too regional and trashy for his tastes.

It also needs to be said that this film is about capturing both a time and a place. The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a historical horror film taking place firmly in a post war period. The film also tries to capture a place. Pierce wants to mythologize a version of the American South that isn’t pre-Civil War. He shows how the citizens of the town react to these crimes. Occasionally it turns the film into an episode of The Andy Griffith Show, complete with its own bumbling officer played Pierce himself. Still filmmakers outside of the American South rarely show the folks there as anything other than ignorant and backwards. Pierce clearly wants to use this story to show audiences a real place with real people enduring a real crime.

At the end of the film and as in real life, the police don’t catch The Phantom. Filmmaker Charles B. Pierce theorizes that they might still be out there. He shows town folks in line for a film. In that, the shot focuses on the shoes of what is implied to be the killer. This could be seen as a typical gotcha moment implying a sequel. In this film though, it genuinely conveys that Texarkana is a real place whose citizens still live in fear of this man. The attacks could start again that night or tomorrow. The people will continue to fear them and this person lives for it.

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