Directed by Charles B. Pierce
Distributed by Scream Factory
If Scream Factory were a person, I’d give them a hug. The genre-centric offshoot of disc distributor Shout Factory, Scream Factory has been pleasing fans and wowing collectors for the past several months by unearthing obscure horror titles and giving them loving releases to DVD and Blu-ray. From their bonus-laden packages and gorgeous transfers to the kickass new artwork they commission for most of their titles, SF is quickly becoming the Criterion Collection for horror fans (they also made this writer’s day by announcing upcoming Blu-rays for both Psycho II and Psycho III as this review was being written).
One of their newest releases is The Town That Dreaded Sundown, Legend of Boggy Creek filmmaker Charles B. Pierce’s 1976 thriller which has sadly remained too little seen due to its status as a hard to find title (its last release was on VHS, if any of you out there remember those). As a result of its limited availability, relatively few fans seem to be aware of the film – threatening the movie’s deserved standing as a minor horror classic. Hopefully, this new Blu-ray release will find its way into the homes of viewers young and old, helping Town to regain its footing in the heart of horror fandom as a must-see fright flick.
Based upon a series of killings that took place in 1946 Texarkana (known as the “Moonlight Murders”), Town opens with the sort of dour, matter-of-fact narration that’d put a smile on John Larroquette’s face – setting the mood for the gritty docudrama that follows. The voiceover introduces us to a set of potential victims: a couple of young lovers who make the unfortunate mistake of parking in a desolate area for their amorous activities. They are soon interrupted with a fright – a hulking beast of a man wearing a plain white hood over his face. He viciously attacks the couple, though both manage to survive and tell their tale.
Not long after, another attack on a pair of kids occurs in yet another lovers’ lane – this time leaving the youngsters dead, both having been killed in a grisly fashion. Panic strikes in Texarkana, as the police force do their best to assuage worried townspeople while attempting to catch the maniac responsible for the attacks. Eventually, help arrives in the form of J.D. “Lone Wolf” Morales (Johnson), a no-nonsense Texas lawman dead set on catching the newly-dubbed “Phantom Killer” before he can strike again.
But strike the killer does, again and again, earning his “phantom” moniker while escaping apprehension and baffling the officers in pursuit (including Deputy Norman Ramsey, played by 70s genre stalwart Andrew Prine). Eventually, after several gruesome and still quite terrifying sequences (one bit with a trombone being both apocryphal and truly disturbing for its realism), the film culminates with a footchase and shootout with the Phantom, Morales, and Ramsey (that this confrontation never occurred in real life doesn’t dampen how authentic the entire climax feels – a testament to director Pierce’s skill).
Though the film is not without its flaws (its obvious low budget, some continuity gaffes, some ill-timed humor), The Town That Dreaded Sundown still manages to make for a chilling watch, with Pierce stylistically walking a line between slasher and verité – creating a “you are there” feel for most of the proceedings. This approach is undoubtedly helped by the cast on hand, with most of the actors giving pretty great performances throughout.
Johnson makes for a fine lead, ably embodying the legendary Texas Ranger he’s playing, while Prine is just great as the earnest deputy in dogged pursuit of the killer terrorizing his hometown. And though her role is small, “Gilligan’s Island” alum Dawn Wells is fantastic as Phantom victim Helen Reed – especially during a prolonged chase which Kevin Williamson must have referenced in part during the opening minutes of Scream. So real does her terror feel in this sequence, that this viewer couldn’t help but hold his breath while watching. Add to all this James Roberson’s simple yet beautiful cinematography and Jaime Mendoza-Nava’s effective musical score, and The Town That Dreaded Sundown may well be one of the best films you’ve never seen.
Need more of an incentive to watch it? Scream Factory’s Blu-ray release of the film sports a gorgeous transfer, both sharp and boasting beautiful colors. The print on display does bear some occasional dirt, speckling, and scratches, though this only adds to the grindhousey charm the film has. The provided audio track is only in stereo, though dialogue is clear and the effects and music are as punchy as needed.
The disc excels with its bonus features. First up, there is an audio commentary featuring Justin Beahm and Jim Presley, the latter being an authority on the Moonlight Murders case. Beahm, a genre writer currently working on Halloween: The Authorized History, keeps the talk lively and informative, giving a good overview of the production as Presley comments on the murders that inspired the film. It’s well worth a listen. Michael Felsher’s Red Shirt Pictures provides three neat interviews, featuring Prine, Wells, and Director of Photography Roberson. Prine’s interview runs just under ten minutes, and features plenty of fun stories as the veteran actor recalls the shooting of Town, while Well’s interview clocks in at only four and a half minutes (but features the still beautiful actress telling a terrific story about her big chase sequence). The interview with Roberson is the longest of the bunch, and has the talented shooter recalling how he fell into his career and his time on set with Pierce. We also get an effective if dated theatrical trailer, and a poster and still gallery featuring both behind the scenes shots and various promotional materials. There is also an essay by Brian Albright which gives a brief but informative overview of Pierce’s film and the actual case that inspired it.
Topping all this off is a DVD copy of Pierce’s 1979 film The Evictors, which also purported to be based on a true story. The film stars Michael (From Dusk Till Dawn, Red State) Parks and Jessica (Suspiria) Harper as a young couple who purchase a home that may not have been fully vacated by its previous tenants. It’s an effective thriller, full of good performances and tense sequences (and a surprisingly grim finale), and is well worth checking out to see how Pierce’s style had evolved from Town.
Honestly, folks – just buy this one. Buy it. If you’ve never seen the film, you’re in for a treat. And if you have, just know that this is easily the best this film has ever looked. Couple that with the impressive bonus features and Pierce’s The Evictors, and you have what this reviewer considers a must own disc.
Hopefully, you will too.
4 out of 5
5 out of 5