The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) Review

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October-time, and Halloween season, hell…Autumn and Winter in general, always feels more suitable a time to binge on horror, and it’s usually when I sit back and watch some genre films that I have been meaning to check out for ages, and this one is one of those, a title I’ve heard about many times, and been curious about, but for whatever reason, just never watched. The Town That Dreaded Sundown, a 70’s horror film that has been subjected to a recent remake, apparently, is that film, and I sat and gave it a first viewing on a rainy autumn day.

Directed by Charles B. Pierce (The Legend of Boggy Creek) and written by Earl E. Smith (Sudden Impact), a team of two who worked together many times, this film begins like a documentary, in a way, with a narrator (Vern Stierman) laying out the setting and the story to us. I liked this, I thought it felt different from other old horror films from this era, and worked well with the tone of the picture. We witness a rag-hooded crazy-man with wild eyes peering from behind his mask, going insane and murdering people left and right in a quiet post-war Texarkana township. One thing I immediately noticed was how the setting was a big part of the horror, and how having a masked and deranged killer roaming the quiet suburban streets would have been a terrifying concept back in the mid-70’s, and in many ways, is today, though the terror is hidden beneath the fact that the current generation of horror is so shocking that true terror is often only found when deeper thought is placed onto a concept. The desperation of the law enforcement, along with the fear that spread across the community, is shown as people bolt their doors shut and peer from their windows, afraid and unable to sleep at sundown.

It’s a very effective film, and Pierce’s way of telling his story, slowly following the police officers who clutch at straws in order to try to stop this madman, all the while allowing the tension to build, made for a change from what we have become used to now with the fast jolts into gory violence. I like slow building and tense films, and this one was just that. Based on a true case and true events, the scenes of the killings are done really well, and while not excessive or particularly graphic, they hold much more power than I expected they would, and provide us with an idea of why this town is in such a terrified state. Ben Johnson (The Wild Bunch) as Captain Morales, Andrew Prine (The Miracle Worker) as Deputy Ramsay, Dawn Wells (Lover’s Knot) as Helen Reed, among others, make up a good cast, some unknown, and many of whom are veteran actors who know what they’re doing, so the film feels fluid, and strong, from it’s opening until it’s final moments.

Now, there were some moments of what I felt was unnecessary slowness in the story, and times when things like the music, the narration, or the change in tone, jolted me from what was a building atmosphere of terror, and I didn’t like that too much, I felt it made the film seem a bit daft at times, when it could easily have felt straight and tense on a constant basis. The score, come to mention it, is the worst thing about this film. It belongs in an episode of a 50’s family Saturday morning Americana television show, not in a 70’s horror film about a masked killer. But these issues aside, I enjoyed the film. I thought most of the performances were good, and the look of the masked psychopath is still effective some 38 years after its release.

Suspenseful, and some might say ahead of its time, The Town That Dreaded Sundown features some great moments, and some that don’t seem to fit in with the film, but overall I feel like this is an underrated thriller featuring a killer that looks and feels real and threatening. It’s undoubtedly influential to some of the slasher films that followed in the end of the 70’s and the 80’s, and for that, should be seen by fans of the genre. I’m glad I watched it, and while I’m not in a necessary hurry to revisit the film, I had a good time with it on a cold autumn day in October.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown is on Netflix (US), now.

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