Synopsis: A Texas Ranger hunts for a hooded serial killer terrorizing the residents of a small town, set in 1946 Arkansas. Loosely based on a true story.
Stars: Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Dawn Wells
Director: Charles B. Pierce
Running Length: 86 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Original Release Date: December 24, 1976
Review: In all my visits to the horror section at my local video store I never got around to toting the clamshell package for The Town That Dreaded Sundown up to the counter for a check-out. Not that the box art didn’t make a large impression on me, with that scary masked man peeking out from a lone eyehole popping up once or twice in nightmares brought on by my impressionable imagination. Up until earlier this week, I actually though I’d seen it at some point over the years but when the trailer for the remake of this came out I realized that I had yet to make a visit to this terror town.
Turns out, some childhood memories are better left to staying put as hazy recollections because after trudging through all 86 very long minutes of this cheap-o 1976 horror film on Amazon Prime (nicely remastered in HD, by the way) I just don’t get why it’s remembered at all, let alone remembered fondly.
Playing like an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard with a Zodiac plotline, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is light on the scares and heavy on seemingly endless scenes of exposition that are more likely to lull you to sleep instead of keep you up at night. There’s probably a total of 10 minutes where anything actually happens and the rest is comprised of hokey acting and comedic moments (intentional and otherwise) that take you completely out of whatever momentum director Charles B. Pierce was trying to build.
To its credit, the film does take a page from actual history by documenting the bizarre murders of five people over the course of several months in a tiny town on the border between Arkansas and Texas. The crimes were grisly and the murders were never solved…all this should have provided the basis for something very eerie and unsettling but I was never engaged in the goings-on to much care what happened next.
While the murder scenes have a certain creepy frankness to them (and boy can some of those ladies scream!), the low-budget affords no style or imagination to be employed. As a respected Texas Ranger, Ben Johnson makes convincing work of his character but is weighed down by being involved in the aforementioned comedic moments. Escaped from Gilligan’s Island, Mary Ann herself (Dawn Wells) filmed her scenes in a day and a half and didn’t read the script before shooting her scenes…and it shows because Wells acts like she’s wandered into a Tennessee Williams play instead of a budget-less horror film.
Though attempts at atmosphere are admirable, it’s not enough to save the film from striking out when compared to other thrillers of the era. I don’t need blood and guts to call a horror movie a classic…but it needs to be interesting and this film is a huge bore. The remake has it easy, actually, because it can improve upon its source material with little effort.
Don’t visit this town.