The first and last time, until now, I saw The Town That Dreaded Sundown was probably shortly after its original release back in 1976. This means I was way, waaaay too young to see what amounts to a prototype of the “slasher” film, one that shares some interesting parallels with what is considered by many (incorrectly!) the first of this genre, 1978’s Halloween.
Based on the true story of the Texarkana Moonlight Murders of 1946, the movie is an interesting attempt to present the “facts” of the case, even though there are considerable digressions and some very clumsy attempts to bring in humor. And, yes, even a car chase/crash. Even that.
The film’s story revolves around the unsolved serial killings and assaults our antagonist was (perhaps) responsible for. In the end, the man responsible for this rampage was blamed for assaulting eight people in total and of those, killing five of them.
The impressions I most recall of the only time I saw this film was the killer himself, presented as a tall, strong, and merciless force. He wore a cloth bag over his face with eye-holes cut into it and his eyes were a very deep, deep blue. When he breathed, the bag covering his face would ebb and flow, violently. This effect was creepy and remains so. Given the fact that the actor’s face is almost completely covered, its amazing how those intense blue eyes and the very heavy breathing successfully conveyed the savagery of his character. The second most lasting impression to my mind was his final attack, wherein he assaults a housewife and her husband in a pretty gory fashion. The husband is killed, the wife almost falls victim to him.
The wife, as it turned out, was played by -of all people!- Dawn Wells, who is best known as Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island. Given the fact that this film was made less than ten years after that show ended, she looks remarkably unchanged, and that adds a whole other layer of creepiness to see her become a bloody victim to this seemingly unstoppable killer. However, her role is ultimately quite minimal, occupying maybe five or so minutes of film time.
The movie itself shows signs of its age. While today’s horror films are not adverse to showing considerable amounts of gore, what gore is presented here amounts to nothing more than 1970’s era bright red blood. Nonetheless, despite this lack of gore, the film is quite harrowing at times. The attacks are often uncomfortably long and presented at times in a near documentary style. This adds to the horror. The victims are not presented as movie-style caricatures (ie, the horny teen, the stoner teen, etc.), but rather “real” people. Again, very uncomfortable to watch.
Where the film fails is in that the filmmakers didn’t appear to have a very good grasp of the story they were trying to tell. Between the killings, obviously, they had to present some kind of story. They chose logically, focusing on the police’s attempts to apprehend the killer. However, even this might not have been enough and padding is evident, particularly when we’re shown some very awkward -and downright stupid- “humor” sequences involving an incompetent deputy driver. This attempt at humor culminates in an out of left field car chase that results in a police car flying into a shallow lake. Needless to say, this sequence looked like it belonged in another movie.
Nonetheless, I found it interesting to revisit this very early example of a “slasher” film. While I’m not a particularly big fan of this horror sub-genre, it is nonetheless a popular genre to many. To those, you may be curious to give the film a look.