Based on a true story, independent regional filmmaker Charles B. Pierce’s THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN was a popular drive-in film which preceded the slasher craze of the late 1970s and 1980s. An American International Pictures (AIP) release which seems to have built up a sizable reputation over the years, you would have thought that MGM would have released this one on DVD ages ago as part of their “Midnite Movies” series, but thankfully Shout! Factory has licensed it and have appropriately given it the Blu-ray treatment under their Scream Factory banner. Better yet, Pierce’s follow-up horror film, THE EVICTORS, has been included on the DVD portion of this excellent package.
After the Second World War, the otherwise peaceful, small town of Texarkana, Arkansas, is terrorized by a mysterious, vicious stalker who likes to prey on young couples in parked cars. This hulking maniac likes to tie up his female victims and has a fetish for biting and chewing on various parts of their body. His first two victims survive, but wind up in the hospital, unable to identify their assailant. Three weeks later, another pair of parked lovers fall prey to the phantom killer’s methods of torture and perversion, but this time both are found dead. With Deputy Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine, HANNAH QUEEN OF THE VAMPIRES) baffled by the incidents and the identity of the killer, Captain Morales (Ben Johnson, DILLINGER), a known criminal investigator and Texas Ranger arrives in town, followed by the FBI, as a curfew is ordered in Texarkana (as the killer only attacks during nighttime hours). With a number of local crackpots claiming to be the attacker, the real culprit continues to elude everyone except for his next victim.
Pierce (who died in 2010) had started his professional film career in the 1960s mainly as a set decorator, and would work on a number of AIP films including DILLINGER, LITTLE CIGARS, COFFY and SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM (all released in 1973); he would then produce and direct a total of five features for Sam Arkoff’s company between 1975 and 1979. In 1972, he directed his first feature, THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, a crude but appealing G-rated documentary-like account of a Bigfoot-type creature which was made for peanuts and became a drive-in favorite, pulling in millions at the box office. Pierce utilized the documentary-like appearance again for TOWN, giving it a stylized approach that works in the film’s favor. While the two leads are known, professional actors, many of the supporting cast are played by locals, adding to a more realistic vibe. Like many of Pierce’s efforts, it was shot entirely on location (in parts of Arkansas, including Texarkana, as well as Texas), and although the budget must have been extremely limited, the handsome production adequately recreates the look and feel of 1946, with an onslaught of classic cars, authentic hometown clothing and proper backdrops not effected by time.
While some have accused TOWN of being amateurish and dull, it’s easy to beg to differ, especially when seeing the film again in a glorious new transfer. While the script — which fictionalized the saga of a real-life uncaught Texarkana “Phantom Killer”— by Earl E. Smith allows for some comic relief throughout, his method of documenting the events allows for evenly pacing, and since the story evolves around an unknown, hooded killer with no motive accept for an assumed severe psychological dilemma, this actually gives the film an edge, story-wise. Examples of this are when we see the killer in daylight, but only shown to the audience by his dingy shoes in several scenes: one of his future victims recognizes him at a supermarket, and he is also in the presence of the dining investigating officers when a doctor (played by Smith himself) confirms to them that their culprit is motivated by a strong sex drive and will likely never be caught. The nighttime scenes of the killer are of course the film’s highlight and are still quite shocking (sadistic in nature yet not overly graphic, compared to other movies of the period). The tall menace, played by stuntman Dennis Lehane, is an intimating baddie, a denim-clad maniac with a white sack (with only circular cuts for his eyes) tied around his neck. He’s not opposed to using various weapons, including a shotgun and a trombone (!), and LeLane gets the most out of well-concealed character, having him breath heavily through his mask to give him a sense of enraged expression.
The film’s two stars, Prine and Johnson (his Oscar win for THE LAST PICTURE SHOW was enough for his image to be singled out in the film’s advertising) have played these types of lawman roles before and since, and they work quite well off each other (there’s a great climatic bit where the two are separated from their subject by a moving locomotive, taking shots at him in a slow-mo sequence similar to what Johnson experienced with Sam Peckinpah in THE WILD BUNCH). Given significant billing in the small but pivotal and memorable part of housewife Helen Reed is Dawn Wells (Mary Ann of “Gilligan’s Island” TV fame). Wells had already starred in Pierce’s WINTERHAWK the year before, and here she plays a victim who endures prolonged suffering, really giving the killer a run for his money. Pierce casts himself as the goofy desk cop (nicknamed "Sparkplug") who drives a patrol car (carrying Ramsey and Morales) into a pond and goes drag for a lovers’ lane sting. Vern Stierman provides the narration throughout the film (he served the same duties on BOGGY CREEK) and adds to the docu-feel from start to finish (in the final shot of the film, he warns us in the present day of 1976 that the killer might still be on the loose at a screening of a film called THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN). The cinematography by James Roberson amply utilizes the wide Panavision framing, and composer Jaime Mendoza-Nava provides a score that nicely transitions between period Americana and heart-pounding terror.
Not seen on home video since Warner Home Video’s big-box VHS and the subsequent GoodTimes Home Video issue, it’s pretty remarkable to think that MGM never released the film during their DVD heyday. Fans that never got to see the film theatrically finally were able to witness it in widescreen with some recent TCM late-night airings, but this release from Scream Factory is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The 1080p High Definition transfer is presented in the film’s original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, and it looks nothing short of stunning. Even with some very minor blemishes attributed to the original negative, the picture is virtually spotless and looks ultra crisp, with rich detail, vivid colors and deep blacks. Likewise, the nighttime attack scenes — which appeared so muddy in the previous VHS releases — now look incredible and truly standout. The mono 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio is flawless, matching the beautiful visual presentation, and optional English SDH subtitles are also on hand. On the additional standard DVD, the same HD transfer is presented anamorphic widescreen with a Dolby Digital mono track.
The Blu-ray supplements for TOWN (all of which are also included on the standard DVD) include an interesting audio commentary with Jim Presley, historian of the real “Phantom Killer” case, moderated by Justin Beahm. The commentary focuses on the real murders which inspired the film (documented at length by journalist Presley), and the liberties taken by the filmmakers in their dramatizing. Shout! Factory and Red Shirt Pictures have produced three featurettes for the disc. “Small Town Lawman with Andrew Prine” (9:41) has the actor discussing his constant willingness to take parts in the low budget films he was offered during the 1970s, and he describes Pierce as a “wild man”, adding that he had a hell of a good time while making TOWN. Prine thought the world of Ben Johnson (they’d already worked in picture together) and describes Dawn Wells (who he had co-starred with in an episode of “The Invaders” TV series) as, “more beautiful than the film deserved”. The actress sits down for an interview in “Survivor Stories with Dawn Wells” (5:17). Wells first worked with Pierce on WINTERHAWK, and she discusses her positive experience on TOWN, being flown in to work on the film for a day and half, shooting her scene in the corn fields in the middle of the night (and returning to her Ramada Inn hotel covered in blood, and hair all matted). “Eye of the Beholder with Jim Roberson” (12:33) has the cinematographer describing his shoot as a 25-year-old with a broken foot, and how hot and rainy it was during the production, and he also gives a great anecdote about Ben Johnson while working on another Pierce film. Rounding out TOWN’s supplements are the original theatrical trailer, a poster and still gallery, and an essay about the film (including mention of Pierce having to go to court several times over it) entitled “The Phantom of Texarkana” by Brian Albright.
Included on the DVD only is Pierce’s follow-up horror genre film, THE EVICTORS (1979), which was one of the last features released by AIP before Sam Arkoff sold the company (followed by it becoming Filmways). In a sepia tone flashback, we witness that in 1928, the inhabitants of a Louisiana farmhouse draw gunfire on the police when they are served with repossession papers and asked to leave the premises. Years later, in 1942, the newly married couple of Ben (Michael Parks, THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER) and Ruth Watkins (Jessica Harper, THE PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE) move into the same house after Ben takes a lucrative factory job in the area. Ruth learns from a neighbor that the house has a history of violent murders, and she also finds a note in her mailbox warning the couple to leave. But the worst is yet to come as Ruth is subjected to a prowler who keeps creeping around the house while Ben is working long hours, miles from the secluded farmhouse.
I really don’t want to give any more away for those who never saw THE EVICTORS (the few that have probably caught it on HBO in the early 1980s or rented the long out of print Vestron Video tape). PG-rated and low on gore, the film is an intense thriller, nicely directed by Pierce in a slow, escalating plot structure that creates the proper moodiness. Like with TOWN, Pierce (who based this on a story he read in a crime magazine) goes for a period setting, with several other sepia tone flashbacks aside from the one in the opening scene. There are a few clichés (typical of house horror movies) and the twist ending is a bit confusing, but the story works for the most part and it’s well acted by a familiar cast including the leads Parks (who has had a career resurgence as of late due to Quentin Tarantino’s casting him in a number of his films) and SUSPIRIA cult icon Harker playing the ideal damsel in distress. Top-billed Vic Morrow (who has limited screen time) plays a chauvinistic real estate agent and Sue Ane Langdon (the third actress to play Alice Kramden in Jackie Gleason's “The Honeymooners” TV sketches and shows) is a friendly, wheelchair-bound neighbor who any seasoned horror fan will sense is up to no good. Character actor Dennis Fimple (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAKE) can be seen briefly in the last scene, and Jaime Mendoza-Nava composes a terrific score equal to or better than the one he provided for TOWN.
Never given a DVD release before, MGM previously relegated THE EVICTORS to Netflix’s streaming service, but now thankfully Scream Factory has remedied that. The standard DVD presentation has the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, with the transfer looking quite nice. The Technicolor schemes are properly replicated and the image is mostly sharp and grain free throughout. The mono audio is also in good shape, free of any detectable hiss or distortion. While there are no supplements affixed to THE EVICTORS on the disc, the original theatrical trailer can be found on Synapse’s preview compilation, 42ND STREET FOREVER, VOLUME 2: THE DEUCE. (George R. Reis)
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