Blu-Ray Review: The Town That Dreaded Sundown

MAY 22, 2013


It's a (very minor) shame Rolling Thunder doesn't hit shelves until next week, because it would have been really weird/cool to see it come out the same day as The Town That Dreaded Sundown (both from Shout Factory), as I saw the films together back in 2007 at the New Beverly as part of a festival Quentin had programmed to celebrate the release of Grindhouse. As both films were long sought after DVD titles (neither of them ever hit legitimate release on the format), it's a testament to both the service that Shout (and their Scream Factory sub-label) is performing for film fans, as well as their impeccable taste in titles (QT loves The Burning too, for what it's worth).

Of this week's Scream Factory releases, Sundown would be my pick if you could only afford one. Even Burning's biggest fans have to admit that there isn't much there that they couldn't see in other camp slashers, but there's nothing quite like Charles B. Pierce's account of the still unsolved murders that plagued the town of Texarkana in the late 1940s. If I had to narrow it down, I'd describe it as a feature length Unsolved Mysteries recreation, thanks to the frequent, grave narration and largely truthful recreations of the murders - basically everything except Robert Stack's trenchcoat and the prompt to call 1-800-876-5353. But Pierce clearly wanted to make something a little more exploitative for the drive-in audience, and thus stages the murders like bonafide slasher scenes, embellishing when necessary (sorry folks; the killer never used a trombone to kill anyone - though a saxophone was taken from one victim) and actually making them pretty effective setpieces.

See, the first attack doesn't actually kill either victim, and thus unless you've seen the trailer (which explains each attack and its outcome), it's not a foregone conclusion that anyone will die. So while it follows the pattern of many serial killer films and doesn't introduce any victim until they're about to be attacked (as opposed to a slasher, where we know everyone more often than not), they ARE quite suspenseful; the final one in particular, with the killer stalking none other than Dawn "Mary Ann" Wells, is a terrific nailbiter (and even a pretty solid bloodspray effect - keep in mind this predates any major slasher save the rather bloodless Black Christmas), and the trombone sequence, while not surprisingly made up, is still pretty effectively unnerving. There are four major attacks in the film, plus a (completely fictional) chase at the end to give the movie SOME sort of climax - it's a fine balance between the facts and typical entertainment.

However, Pierce can't be satisfied with this, and also tosses in some very jarring attempts at humor, mostly centered around a dimwitted deputy that seems to all but prove that he saw Black Christmas, as "Sparkplug" is a completely fictional character that is almost exactly like Sergeant Nash in that film. The character in Christmas worked; not only was there humor to be found elsewhere (the house mother, the Santa at the party, etc), but it wasn't a true story - it's one thing to add some theatrics to the kill scenes, but it's another to treat the events as a joke. When Sparkplug drives his car with the other two cops (played by Ben Johnson and Andrew Prine) into a swamp during a chase with a potential suspect for the murderer, it's just plain awkward. Oh, and he's played by Pierce himself, which just makes it feel self-serving on top of everything else.

Thus, I am guessing Sparkplug won't be around in the upcoming remake, though maybe NONE of these people will - early word suggests it's a meta-remake/sequel hybrid, with a young girl being targeted by a killer during an annual viewing of the movie itself? And trying to solve the original murders at the same time? It sounds a bit too up its own ass for my tastes, BUT it's not like they don't have precedent of sorts - THIS movie ends with the killer attending a screening of a movie based on the murders (also called The Town That Dreaded Sundown), after all. So it'll be like a Stab/Scream thing, I guess? Ryan Murphy is producing, and while I've hated that guy's work throughout his career, I did find myself quite charmed by the first season of American Horror Story (haven't seen the 2nd season yet), so maybe he can pull off something admirable here. I think we can safely assume that the real Phantom Killer will never be "caught" - the murders were in 1947 and he was said to be 30-40 years old, which means if he's still alive he won't be for long (best case scenario - he's 96 years old right now), but maybe some digging or a forthcoming relative can shed some light on the topic - new movies tend to bring folks out of the woodwork.

Shout made a good call when it came time to record their standard commentary track - rather than get Prine or someone to talk over the whole film (Pierce himself passed away a few years ago), they have gotten an expert on the case to fill in some details and updates. His name is Jim Presley, and he grew up in the area and seems to be the world's biggest expert on it (there's a new book on the case - which seems to be the first - and he is mentioned frequently by the author), so he's loaded with great info and even a few updates (one guy has a theory that the Phantom was also the Zodiac killer - the two cases ARE fairly similar, for what it's worth). The moderator doesn't add much, and by his own admission this isn't Presley's kind of movie, so if you don't have much interest in the case and just want to know about the movie itself, stick with the three new interviews. Prine, Wells, and DP James Roberson all offer up the standard Red Shirt interviews where they talk about each other in succession and then offer their final thoughts while plopped in front of a green-screen and equipped with a lav mic that no one tried to hide - maybe it's because I'm watching a dozen of these a month, but can they break up their template a bit? Anyway, of the three Prine's is by far the most entertaining, as he recounts getting drunk with Johnson and having to shoot the climax while very hung over ("I'm told we had a wonderful time the night before!"), and even explains how he wrote the ending himself because Pierce's script didn't really have one. Roberson also tells a cute story about how the woman who became his wife told him how much the film scared her when they met, and Wells talks of her unsuccessful attempt to talk to the woman she was portraying. I kind of miss when they'd combine all this stuff into one longer retrospective piece (like Halloween II and III), but at least it's easier to find the time for them in 5-10 min segments I guess. A text essay about the real case and film's legacy is also included.

You also get a DVD copy of The Evictors, which if memory serves is the best possible way to sell it - for free inside the case of a superior film. Though my buddy Dick says it's one of his favorite horror films, so maybe I should give it another look. No extras on that one, but you also get a DVD of all the Sundown material (and the movie, duh), so it's a pretty nice package for a movie that was inexplicably ignored during DVD's 10 year reign as the superior home viewing format (though it was worth the wait - the transfer is from an occasionally battered print but it looks phenomenal otherwise). It's a shame Pierce never got to offer his thoughts in detail on it (Johnson's been dead since before DVD even existed, and many of the people involved with the case - such as the person Prine played - were already dead when they made the movie in 1976). I'd be curious to read the book (it just came out last week - why the sudden fascination with this case?), and yay - since I don't do this every day anymore I'll actually have time to do so!

What say you?


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