Tuesday, 18 August 2015

the town that dreaded sundown (1976)

have you ever wondered what it would look like if you took jason voorhees from friday 13th part two and put him into a police procedural with realist/documentary elements reminiscent of zodiac, along with some peckinpah-style slo-mo action and the occasional moment of broad comedy? because that’s kind of what this is.

the town that dreaded sundown is based on a series of unsolved murders that occurred in bowie county, texas in 1946. the film fictionalises some of the events and moves the location to texarkana, arkansas, but the story is roughly the same and follows the attempts of a small town police force to apprehend a vicious and calculating serial killer.

there are a number of interesting aspects to discuss here, but most prominent is where it sits in horror film history. the film was made in 1976, two years before halloween and two years after black christmas (widely regarded as the first real slasher film). given how early in slasher history it was made it’s amazing how much typical slasher iconography is on display here. we have a seemingly unstoppable masked killer, long scenes of torture and murder and increasingly bizarre and inventive methods of killing people. the murder scenes would be at home in any of the friday 13th or halloween films and it seems that in some ways this film was a bigger influence on the genre than the more infamous titles. the murders even span the entire evolution of the slasher film, moving from the basic (shooting someone with a gun) to the brutal (we thankfully don’t see it, but one of the victims is described as being covered in bite marks) to the just plain weird (stabbing someone by playing a trombone with a knife attached to the end). yes, there is a scene in this film in which someone is killed by a trombone. it is worth seeing for this scene alone.

the police procedural aspect of the film also works really well, following a young deputy sheriff (andrew prine) as he teams up with a seasoned texas ranger (ben johnson) to catch the killer. the film really captures the desperation and futility of their task, trying to catch a killer in a town surrounded by countryside with only the basic policing methods of the time at their disposal. they do at one stage consult a criminal psychologist for a profile on the killer and are basically told that they will never catch him. added to this is a deadly serious narration which heightens the gravity of the situation and highlights the plight of a population scared to leave their houses after dark.

what doesn’t work as well are the occasional attempts at humour, usually at the expense of hapless police officer ‘sparkplug’ played by the director, charles b. pierce. pierce isn’t the problem exactly, and in a different film the scenes of his terrible driving or getting irate with people trying to report crimes might even be funny, but here they really grate against the overall tone. this is a film about a real life serial killer it seems an odd choice to have the scenes of murder and cold, hard police work interspersed with moments of slapstick and absurdity. it reminded me of the comedy moments in the last house on the left, another rather grim film with awkward comedic interludes. maybe it was a seventies thing?

overall though the misjudged attempts at humour don’t detract from what is a fascinating and suspense-filled horror film. there are some genuinely terrifying moments alongside some genuinely exciting ones and the cast really do a great job at selling the authenticity. in a way it’s the perfect crossover film, because there are enough cool horror moments for slasher fans but these are balanced out by the police procedural elements. as with all eureka releases the picture looks great and there are some nice extras including a commentary and cast interviews. if you’re interested in checking out a more obscure but essential piece of cinema history this is certainly worth watching.

eureka entertainment release the town that dreaded sundown will be released in dual format (blu-ray and dvd) on 24th august 2015

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