The Town That Dreaded Sundown

Certificate: 18
Running time: 86 mins
Director: Charles B. Pierce
Starring: Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Dawn Wells, Charles B. Pierce
Genre: Drama, Crime, Thriller
Country: USA

The penultimate week of term sees the sleepy border town of Texarkana terrorised by a hooded killer as the U.S attempts to return to a degree of reality after the Second World War.

Charles B. Pierce is probably better known for his work as a Set Decorator having worked on Coffy, The Outlaw Josey Wales and Scream Blacula Scream but the dozen films which he helmed between 1972 and 1998, including the underappreciated The Evictors and the overly problematic Hawken’s Breed showcase many sides of a beautifully flawed director.  His 1976 thriller come docu re-enactment The Town That Dreaded Sundown boasts “the how and the where to be true, only the names have been changed” and it’s with that statement that we begin.

The similarities between the time periods (of the events occurring and of the films creation) are incredibly interesting.  In 1949 we have a Nation coming out of the biggest war it and the World has ever seen.  A country that has witnessed, if not on their mainland, at least on their psyche an attack with Pear Harbor and a generation of physically and psychologically damaged individuals who leave the military only to have their issues locked up in the conservative values of the time.  Jump forward thirty years and we see a new America, an America of changing values and liberal attitudes, a change reflected in it’s cinema but again coming out of a war, one that has left even more people physically maimed and psychologically scarred.  The ‘cinema of trauma’ that was the contemporary Hollywood movement is therefore an ideal backdrop for a tale that seems unbecoming of it’s time and what makes it scarier is that it’s true.

The films use of narration is one that will affect the audience depending on their leanings with regards to narration.  A lot of the time I find the use of a narrator to be contrived and manipulative as it’s unnecessary for you to convey complicated emotion through the screenplay or the performances, after all there’s no need for this when a narrator will do just as well.  This is not the case, in my opinion, with The Town That Dreaded Sundown, the use of narrator works well for this film on two levels.  The first is a period level as a lot of cinema, especially Noir cinema, in the 40’s were reliant on these techniques so it seems only apt that this device to used to set the period.  The second is that it somehow manages to add a level of theatricality and at the same time a factual, documentary feel to the film.  It feels like Dragnet, it feels like Kolchak The Nightstalker yet it’s infinitely more atmospheric than both because of the factual approach of the narration.

Pierce’s framing of the Phantom Killer is skilful, at no time do you want him to portray the killer as some sort of supernatural being yet the way he manoeuvres through shadow and plays within the margins of the darkened cinematic frame put him on par with a Count Orloff with regards to menace but make no mistake he is every bit real.  Likewise Pierce frames a chase scene like he’s a born and bred photographer from Hazard County and the level of energy he instils in these sequences is remarkable.  His cinematography comes apart indoors were a lot of the scenes are motionless and lack any urgency of real enthusiasm.

Ben Johnson gives a fierce performance of the “Lone Wolf Texas Ranger” Captain J.D. Morales, the man who is charged with bringing in the killer.  Like Buford Pusser he’s the kind of lawman you only seem to get in the South, he won’t bend let alone break and though he has a greater understanding of the law than the Pusser depicted in Walking Tall he’s ever inch the bloodhound and is mesmerising throughout.  Andrew Prine puts in an adequate performance as Deputy Norman Ramsey who’s assigned to Morales; he’s the faithful extension of the lawman and does his best with what he’s given.  Pierce saves the best role for himself, one of Patrolman A.C. Benson (aka Sparkplug).  Granted Sparkplug is, no doubt, a completely fictional character designed to give the film some comic relief that I’m not entirely convinced it needs but Pierce does it better than anyone I’ve seen and the Driving and Decoy scenes should be enough to convince you of the same.

Like the narration, the soundtrack will have its division amongst a modern audience.  At time’s it feels a little Mystery Science Theatre 3000 but for the most part it’s extremely effective and claustrophobic as in it’s defined genre scoring there’s a level of psychological baggage that the audience brings with them to fill in the gaps and make the entire experience just that little more terrifying.

Part of what makes The Town That Dreaded Sundown timeless is that lack of closure.  The fact that the killer was never brought to justice allows the story and the film to live on in the psyche of the audience in the same way that Jack the Ripper or the Zodiac killer will always fascinate people.  Another reason is that it’s a film made up of timeless cinematic techniques and done so brilliantly.

If you have the time to kill then why not watch Charles B. Pierce's atmospheric Serial Killer thriller The Town That Dreaded Sundown.


James Gracey said...

I've only seen this once but it certainly made an impression! I remember really enjoying it, though there was some dodgy comedy scenes that broke the mood for me. And like you say, the narrator can be a bit off-putting, but I liked the documentary feel. Also thought your point about the ‘cinema of trauma’ was really interesting. After the atrocities of war, the people of this small town didn't even feel safe in their own land.

John Baxter said...

Thanks James, always appreciate it. The comedy is so oddly placed, quite bizarre. I always find that national cinema is at its greatest during and immediately after times of conflict, 40's and 70's Hollywood, Weimar, Soviet Montage, French New Wave and post Franco Spanish cina all reflect this. The cinema of trauma is oddly the most beautiful.

Jesper said...

I have the movie laying around somewhere and I have wanted to see this movie eversince I saw The Evictors as a kid. I even bought the wonderful poster of the movie and after such a good review it's time to pay The Town That Dreaded Sundown a visit!

John Baxter said...

Thanks Jesper, I haven't seen The Evictors in (probably) as long. I do remember really enjoying it though, I might have to go back and rewatch as I think Charles Pierce is an interesting director.

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