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Friday, October 11, 2013

31 Days of Scream-O-Ween! - The Town That Dreaded Sundown

By David Massey



Today we have a fairly exciting edition to Scream Factory’s line of gussied-up cult horror masterpieces. ‘The Town That Dreaded Sundown’ has gotten the cold shoulder from video and DVD releases over the last few decades but, finally, we’re given a beautiful copy of this genre-defining horror classic.


 The Town That Dreaded Sundown Review

The Film:

In 1976, director Charles B. Pierce (‘The Legend of Boggy Creek’ / ‘The Winds of Autumn’), well before ‘Halloween’ or ‘Friday the 13th, single-handedly invented the silent-killer-in-a-mask genre that has saturated horror ever since. What’s more, he did it with style. There are chunks of this film that could easily have been directed by a young, idealistic Steven Spielberg with an every-man police officer as the lead and an almost-folksy narration elevating the town of Texarkana to sympathetic heights.

In the mid-1940’s, the city of Texarkana (which straddles the Texas/Arkansas border) was the location of one of America’s first serial killer cases. ‘The Town That Dreaded Sundown’ is a very loose interpretation of the (so dubbed) ‘Phantom Killer’s’ exploits and the Police, Texas Ranger, and FBI investigations that followed him over the course of a year. The famous bag mask (that was later recycled for Jason Voorhees’ first appearance in ‘Friday the 13th Part 2’) was a liberty taken by the director - a liberty taken with great success. Also a construct of creative freedom are the murder scenes in this film (which are violently terrifying and extremely graphic for any era). A good example of this skewing of truth is a death – and I won’t go into detail – involving a rather creative attempt at playing the trombone. There was a saxophone in evidence with one of the real murders but the gruesome fiction that Pierce comes up with has to have scarred many young minds over the last 37 years (mine included).

With hindsight and oodles of carbon-copy slasher films stored away in our collective psyches, the plot comes across as being pretty basic for the genre but it’s actually a very human film. There are genuine characters and a bizarre sense of humor that fluxgates between hideously dark and downright goofy. From scene to scene, the tone changes are so jarring that I wouldn’t hesitate to believe that there were multiple directors involved. It feels a bit like a nightmare baby spawned by John Huston, John Carpenter, and ‘The Dukes of Hazard’. How can you possibly not enjoy such a monstrous birth!?


The Disc:

First of all, if it wasn’t for the unmistakable look of the 1970’s (here doing its best to pass for the 1940’s – sideburns and all), I would have believed this was shot with a very nice digital camera; the image looks gorgeous. You’ve got a little grain and what has been removed doesn’t look remotely washed out. This truly looks Criterion quality and I can’t say enough about the presentation. The cover is the original poster for the film and it comes with both a DVD and a Blu-ray copy. On the DVD is also a copy of Pierce’s 1979 film, ‘The Evictors’.

The commentary with Historian Jim Presley, native Texarkanan, really broadens the film and places it in a terrifying reality unmatched by any of the movies ‘Town’ has inspired. There are also a number of mini-documentaries showing interviews with many of the original cast members including Andrew Prine (‘The Miracle Worker’ / ‘Grizzly’) and Dawn Wells (‘Gilligan’s Island’). They are all very candid and quite charming.


The Features:
  • Audio Commentary with Historian Jim Presley
  • Interview with Actors Andrew Prine and Dawn Wells
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Essay by Writer Brian Albright
  • Poster & Still Gallery

The Specs:
  • 1080p High-Definition Widescreen 2.35:1
  • DTS-HD Master Audio Mono
  • English-Only Audio & Subtitles
  • Original Release: 1977
  • Runtime: 86 Minutes
  • Rating: R

Final Grades:

Story: B / This borders on being a serious film with real characters that happens to include some grisly murders.

Presentation: A / Like I said, this looks even better than it should.

Scare Factor: A / The Phantom Killer could easily rival Jason or Michael Myers and with nothing more than a bag over his head.

Gore Factor: B / The biting of his victims is enough to turn your stomach and though most of this is off screen, there are some gnarly deaths scattered throughout.

Repeat view-ability: B / It is as worthy of repeat viewing as any Friday the 13th film could hope to be.
Add The Town that Dreaded Sundown to your collection, click HERE!
Checking out yesterday's Scream Factory review, The Fog!

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