"The incredible story you are about to see is true. Where it happened and how it happened. Only the names have been changed..." Eight months after the end of World War II, on the night of Sunday, March the Third, 1946, in the town of Texarkana, Sammy Fuller (Mike Hackworth) and Linda Mae Jenkins (Christine Ellsworth), a courting couple out for a drive are savagely attacked by a gun-toting maniac wearing a bag over his head. Deputy Norman Ramsay (Andrew Prine) finds them bloodied but still feebly alive, the woman with bite marks all over her body. Twenty-one days later the psycho strikes again, this time torturing then shooting a young couple dead after binding Emma Lou Cook (Misty West) to a tree. As panicked townsfolk board their windows, stock up on guns and, yes, dread sundown, authorities welcome the arrival of Captain J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson), legendary "lone wolf" of the Texas Rangers, who aims to catch the killer dead or alive. Yet even with hard-bitten Morales dogging his trail, the masked maniac continues his murder spree.
True-crime exploitation movies were a staple of drive-ins throughout the Seventies from Walking Tall (1973) and Macon County Line (1975) to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1973) which while not a true story per se sprang from the grisly exploits of real-life serial killer Ed Gein. American International Pictures and drive-in auteur Charles B. Pierce scored a minor triumph in this field with The Town that Dreaded Sundown. Although rarely rated a seminal Seventies horror the film has proven somewhat influential, inspiring a like-named 'meta-horror' sequel released in 2014 while in a strange (and, given the context, slightly unsettling) twist of fate been fondly embraced by residents of the real Texarkana. Screenings of the film have become a Halloween tradition at Spring Lake Park near the town in a free event sponsored by the Texas Department of Parks and Recreation! Nevertheless the film remains controversial not least because its fabricated facts caused rumours and folklore to spread for generations around Texarkana. Pierce amped up the drama by monkeying around with the chronology of events and specifics of the crimes.
Even so The Town that Dreaded Sundown stands as one of Pierce's more accomplished works combining his interest in westerns and horror. The Forties setting adds a tone unique for a proto-slasher film alternating warm nostalgia with a brooding sense of unease. Although intrusive at times the dryly ominous narration by Vern Stierman contextualizes events within the post-war climate, addressing the elation in society as result of the economic boom and lingering anxiety from the war. It is never explicitly stated but implied the killer might be a soldier traumatized by war and venting his psycho-sexual frustration on a thriving community. With a creepy mask and crazy eyes, the wheezing killer cuts a frightening figure and his murders prove genuinely unsettling. It is not an especially gory film yet the intensity of the murder scenes are disturbing in a manner eerily prescient of David Fincher's more celebrated true-crime opus Zodiac (2007). These are not the quick clean kills of Halloween (1978) nor the showy splatter deaths of Friday the 13th (1980). Victims sob, squeal and beg for mercy while they are beaten to death in a manner that is really disturbing. In the film's most infamous scene the killer ties a knife onto a trombone and repeatedly stabs Peggy Loomis (Cindy Butler, Pierce's girlfriend at the time!) to death in a manner both ridiculous and horrifying. The killer's gruelling pursuit of Helen Reed, played by lovely Dawn Wells (who set hearts a-flutter as Mary-Ann on lovably silly sitcom Gilligan's Island), is another taut suspense sequence.
Yet the film is frustratingly inconsistent, alternating moments of visceral terror with misjudged knockabout comedy courtesy of Charles B. Pierce himself in his on-screen incarnation as clumsy cop A.C. 'Sparkplug' Benson (Sparkplug being an actual childhood nickname bestowed on Pierce on account of his restless demeanour). Aside from the eerie main theme the music by Jaime Mendosa-Nava sounds like something out of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon whenever Sparkplug does something dumb. Which happens a lot including a comical car chase that ends with the heroes crashing in the swamp. Everyone has a good laugh when Sparkplug has to pose as a woman to lure out the killer. It is a little funny when his partner jokily cops a feel but, given this is a true story and the murders are so brutal, in questionable taste. While Pierce's direction wavers from gripping suspense sequences to sub-sitcom staging at the Sheriff's office, the performances also veer from accomplished (Johnson, Prine and Wells are top notch) to amateurish (everyone else looks like they fell off the turnip truck). Pierce injects a little action with a cod-Sam Peckinpah slow-mo shootout between Morales and the maniac but wisely retains the ambiguity inherent in the real-life outcome. According to Andrew Prine, Pierce did not know how to end the film and the actor himself scripted the final third although it was supposedly the director's wife who concocted the slightly jokey coda.
[Eureka have released this title in a dual format, Blu-ray and DVD edition. The extras include two trailers (one for the remake), interviews with three participants, expert audio commentary, and a specially composed booklet.]