Film Review: The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976)
I’m taking a look at the proto-slasher film The Town That Dreaded Sundown from the late ’70s, predating Halloween, but being made after Black Christmas.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown is from the writer-director team of Earl E. Smith and Charles B. Pierce (respectively), who had previously done the horror docudrama The Legend of Boggy Creek, a G-Rated horror film based on local legends of a sasquatch-esque cryptid from the Texarkana area. The Town That Dreaded Sundown uses the same presentation for another local legend from the same area – a serial killer known as the “Phantom Killer”, who committed a series of murders of couples in the area and who was never caught.
As with Legend of Boggy Creek, the film claims to be re-enactments of actual events, interspersed with narration covering events in between the major sequences. The film works well enough as a docudrama, though the acting performances are really dry. This is probably due to the nature of the sub-genre.
Pierce & Smith seem to have been aware of this, because they seem to have taken a cue from the scenes with the bumbling deputies from The Last House on the Left, and added a bumbling patrolman – “Sparkplug” – to add artificial comic relief, which comes across as incredibly forced and giving the film a sense of tonal whiplash – something that contemporary and modern critics find grating.
Additionally, while the actual killer just shot people, Pierce and Smith added one of the signature elements of the slasher film – involved kills. In this case, the killer decides to attach a knife to the end of one of the victim’s trombones, and stabs them to death with it by “playing” the trombone. On the one hand, it’s clever. On the other hand, the reason why it’s clever is because it’s trying to be clever. That works in a clearly fictionalized film like the Friday the 13th series, because the film isn’t based on actual events or real people – and because those films have the issue of serial escalation (each film having to top the last).
Here, the movie claims to be based on actual historical events, so it goes from being clever and inventive, to being gross and exploitative – in the bad exploitation film sense (that falls with Manson-sploitation films and Jonestown-sploitation films).
Violence wise, while IMDB says the film received an R-rating, content wise the film is practically a PG-13. There isn’t that much blood, and the the only nudity in the film is a shot of the butt of a guy diving into the water while skinny dipping to establish that the timeline is in the summer.
I don’t know if I’d classify this film as a “must watch” to fans of horror films as a whole or slasher films in particular. Most viewers would expect the narrative buildup and the conclusive ending of a traditional slasher film, along with suspense build that comes with it, and the film takes enough liberties with actual events to annoy True Crime fans. It’s the kind of film where if it was on Netflix Instant or on TV and there was nothing else I wanted to watch, I might put it on in the background, but I would never describe it as something I’d absolutely want to have in my collection.