Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

Serial killers have become such a part of the collective consciousness that they're a cultural institution, aren't they?  Compared to Hannibal Lecter, the serial killer wasn't quite as sensational in the 1970s.  I can think of earlier films where serial murderers were treated as characters, but the 70s saw a different approach: an anonymous serial killer who suddenly appears like the shark from "Jaws".  Although there wasn't a full blown slasher craze yet in 1976, there were a few prototypical examples of what would eventually morph into the 80s splatter genre.  "The Town That Dreaded Sundown" carries with it a bleak, doomy tone that was a few years away from "Friday the 13th", yet foreshadowed the grisly scare tactics of that series.

In case this is the first time you ever heard of this film, it's based on a real series of murders that occurred in Texarkana in the 1940s, where an unidentified assailant struck several times over the course of four months, claiming eight victims, five of whom died.  The film loosely dramatizes the events, although it pads the space around the attack scenes with the attempts of law enforcement characters to stop the murderer.  If you're at all familiar with the real case, then you already know the killer will not be caught, and there isn't much more to it than that.  There's an amateurishness that's hard to deny, and the director makes a grave error in heaping on too much comic relief in the form of bumbling police officers.

It's that same low budget quality that helps the film muster up what little dread that it does. The killer is menacing, wearing a white sack over his head with the eyes cut out. The murder scenes are mostly frightening, except for one sequence where a female character is stalked through a wooded area and can't quit screaming long enough for the killer to lose her trail. Her boyfriend, who has been clubbed but not killed, revives and tries to get away, but she keeps screaming at him "RUN! RUN!!", which conveniently alerts the killer to the fact that a) he's still alive, and b) he's escaping. He dies, and so does she...after the killer straps a knife to her trombone (don't ask) "plays" her to death by stabbing her in the back.

But the most shocking moment of the film for you is probably not going to be when you realize the makers of "Friday the 13th Part 2" dressed Jason to look exactly like the killer in this movie.  It's not going to be the ending, when you realize the murderer gets away with his crimes and could be OUT THERE, even today!  No, the most shocking moment of "The Town That Dreaded Sundown" is going to be when you see the killer attack none other than Dawn Wells, aka Mary Ann from "Gilligan's Island".  Not only does he shoot her directly in the face, he chases her through a cornfield with a pick axe.  Poor Mary Ann!!!  (She lives, but at what cost, I ask?)

Otherwise, I'll be honest with you, this movie is really dull.  The attack scenes deliver some chills, but the film has the atmosphere of a 1970s TV movie (despite the fact that it's a period piece set in 1946).  The bitter waters through which the viewer must wade to reach the sweet will probably not seem worth it to you, unless you're a true crime buff or a total horror geek like me.