Appellate Judge Tom Becker grew up in a town that dreaded Gordon Lightfoot.
Texarkana looked normal during the daylight hours.
But everyone dreaded sundown!
Ah, spring…love is in the air. For me, love is Shout! Factory's Scream Factory division.
It started with a schoolboy crush when I reviewed Prison on Blu-ray, and it really blossomed when I got my hands on the HD version of The Vampire Lovers. But even the gorgeous rendering of the Ingrid Pitt Hammer Horror didn't prepare me for the exploitation rapture of the '70s drive-in classic The Town That Dreaded Sundown.
The fact that this simple yet seminal film never had a proper DVD release is a little shocking; the idea that the release it's getting now is so awesomely good is mind-blowing.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown is an efficient B-movie thriller that played successfully at drive-ins and neighborhood theaters. Combining two '70s drive-in staples—rural America and horror—and adding just enough brutality to eke out an R rating, the film was popular, profitable (easy enough, with the next-to-nothing budget), and influential (check out Jason's get up in Friday the 13th Part 2). The evocative title, somber presentation, and iconic image of the marauding monster with a sack on his head helped etch this film into public consciousness.
The film tells the based-on-a-true-story of a hooded killer who terrorized Texarkana, on the Texas and Arkansas border, over the course of two months in 1946. Wearing what looks like a potato sack on his head, "The Phantom," as he was called, starts out attacking couples parked on Lovers Lanes and moves on to invading homes. There is no motivation for the killings, and the police search frantically for patterns.
It's easy to write off The Town That Dreaded Sundown as a hokey B-movie, because…well, it is a hokey B-movie. Director Charles B. Pierce shot this docu-drama style, the whole thing looking like an extended version of the "dramatic recreation" that would be become popular on TV a decade later with programs like Unsolved Mysteries and was already being used in "true story" films like Pierce's earlier hit, The Legend of Boggy Creek.
Hokey though it may be, Pierce tells his story effectively. The documentary approach was an especially good choice: it makes some of the less compelling performances forgivable and gives Pierce the opportunity to use montage sequences that don't feel forced or intrusive. While he wasn't slavishly true to the facts—as we discover from the commentary track—nothing in the story seems outlandish or false. In fact, the mundane presentation works in the film's favor, heightening the suspense. While gore is minimal, there are a couple of scenes that are actually pretty disturbing.
The cast is made up largely of "unknowns"—many were apparently friends of Pierce, as all their credits were in his films. There are three "name" performers. First is Ben Johnson, durable character actor (predominantly westerns) and Oscar winner for The Last Picture Show. Johnson plays a dogged Texas Ranger brought in to help solve the killings. His earnest performance and down-to-earth presence helps elevate the film to something more than just drive-in fodder.
Cult fav Andrew Prine—with a whopping 180 credits on IMDb, including Simon, King of Witches, Hannah, Queen of the Vampires, and Barn of the Naked Dead—plays the lead local deputy on the case. Prine gives a solid, low-key performance, deferring the spotlight to co-star Johnson. Dawn Wells, forever Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island, appears in a harrowing sequence as a victim. Pierce himself appears in a comic-relief supporting role as an incompetent deputy.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown ultimately exceeds its modest ambitions. The script, by Earl E. Smith (who, with Pierce, wrote the story that was the basis for Sudden Impact), is spare and straightforward. The killer is a hulking, silent, terrifying menace, and the terrified townsfolk are given just enough characteristics for us to empathize with them. It tells its story well, and it stays with you; I can imagine, in those pre-multiplex days, people leaving the theater and looking over their shoulders as they walked to their cars.
The Blu-ray from Shout! Factory's Scream Factory division is nothing if not loving. All cult films should be treated with the kind of respect these folks are offering up.
The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. While there are some scratches and bits of print damage, this is overall an excellent looking transfer; I'm guessing that the flaws were on the print. As I mentioned in another review, I don't mind when older, low-budget movies like this feature a less-than stellar print, as it's probably a closer representation to what it was like watching it in its original run. Detail is solid, colors are vivid, and there's none of that pasty, phony DNR hovering about. The fine image is particularly appreciated here, since The Town That Dreaded Sundown is very well shot, particularly for a low-budget indie. The DTS mono audio track is also very good, clear and free of distortion.
Scream Factory offers an impressive line-up of supplements for The Town That Dreaded Sundown (Blu-ray):
• In a commentary track, author Justin Beahm (Halloween: The Complete Authorized History) talks to Dr. Jim Presley, an historian who has written about the real-life "Phantom" case. This is an excellent listen, with Presley offering up observations about the film and how it compares to the actual case, and Beahm, between questions, giving information and insights about the film, its release, its stars, and Pierce.
• "Small Town Lawman" is an interview with Andrew Prine.
• "Survivor Stories" is an interview with Dawn Wells.
• "Eye of the Beholder" offers recollections from Jim Roberson, who shot the film. These three interviews are really quite good, with the participants offering anecdotes about their careers as well as their experiences on the film and with Pierce; Prine also offers a touching tribute to Ben Johnson.
• "The Phantomm of Texarkana" is an onscreen text essay about the "Phantom" case.
• The Evictors: Pierce's 1979 film is included as a bonus on a second disc, a DVD that also contains everything from the Blu-ray. An atmospheric little chiller that takes place in WWII-era Louisiana, The Evictors stars Jessica Harper (Stardust Memories) and Michael Parks (Argo) as a couple living in a house with a frightening history. While it's not purported to be based on a true story, The Evictors is a tense, creepy thriller that plays like a scary campfire story/local legend. While not as memorable as the main feature, this is a very good little low-budget film that's well-worth seeing, and an excellent addition to the set.
Rounding out the set are a gallery of stills from the film and promotional materials, plus the original trailer.
This really is a great collection of extras, all created specifically for this disc by Shout! Factory and Red Shirt Pictures. While a straight-on "making of" might have been nice, there's more than enough information in the interviews and commentary to understand the background and impact of the film.
A genre classic gets a great digital debut. Scream Factory's Blu-ray is exemplary; this is a must-own set.
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