Just as I went into Antichrist prepared to hate it, I went into The Town that Dreaded Sundown prepared to love it. I was cruising through Netflix (this is truly how I imagine my movie-watching life—I am quite literally cruising through the digital kingdom of Netflix in a convertible, perhaps with a scarf in my hair? I don’t really imagine this.) when I saw the cover art and decided that it was actually my new favorite movie of all time and I had never even seen it.
Look at that. Look at it! It’s perfect. It’s everything I want in a movie.
That is a promotional poster for the movie; the Netflix cover art is the same image but is missing the ominous words at the top and the film information at the bottom. You can see how this would be extremely attractive to me: the frightening-but-obviously-low-budget figure looming out of scale over the town, the use of dusk imagery, the unnecessary quotation marks because I am quite sure that is the title of the movie without needing the punctuation, just everything. It is truly nothing short of perfection.
The movie itself is certainly short of perfection but enjoyable nonetheless. It’s set in 1946 Texarkana, a town on the Texas/Arkansas border which, boy howdy, sounds like an absolutely terrible place to live. It is most definitely a terrible place to live in the spring of that year when cars parked on lovers' lanes are being randomly attacked by an unknown hooded assailant.
The first assault takes place in the opening scenes of the film. It seems like your fairly average maniac-attacks-teens-in-a-parked-car scene but I became aware that I was clenching my fists like I was really anxious. Then I realized that there was no soundtrack or effects or anything—it was just the sound of a woman screaming over and over and over into an otherwise silent backdrop, which was really unnerving. I thought, “oh man, this movie is going to be super scary!”
I was wrong. Eventually I came to realize that the lack of a soundtrack in that scene was most likely a production mistake as opposed to a conscious atmospheric choice because several scenes later, our strong sensitive police deputy is chasing the bad guy in what we are told to believe is a rainy night setting, but half of the cuts in the scene are to broad daylight, sunny and clear. He even uses a flashlight during the daylight cuts! Seriously, you couldn’t have waited eight hours to shoot this 45 seconds of footage? I mean, I guess not. They don't even try to hide it.
The police in this movie are dumb as a bag of hammers, they really are. The deputy reports to the sheriff, who has about six lines in the movie. Two of these lines were so good I felt compelled to write them down: “Captain, we ain’t got nothin’!” and “We haven’t been able to come up with a damn thing!” so that gives you a pretty good idea of his worth. Because he’s so useless, they bring in the most famous Texas Ranger in all the land who, spoiler alert, is also pretty useless. In fact, the middle hour of this film is basically a police procedural which is kind of insane because they don’t collect a single shred of evidence. Not one.
“Wow,” you must be thinking to yourself. “This killer must be good. He must be really good at covering his tracks.” NOPE. Well, the police seem to think so. In fact, the Famous Ranger says to the deputy, “This guy doesn’t make any mistakes!” except that uh, yes, he does. Ultimately he attacks eight people and kills five. That’s a 62.5% kill rate. He leaves more than 1/3 of his victims alive. He is also seen by police on two separate occasions, though they are unable to stop him. These are not the traits of a killer who is uncatchable AND YET, the police are unable to find any sort of clues to point them in any direction whatsoever. We are supposed to be identifying with the police, but they are portrayed as a bunch of bumbling morons. The film also weirdly devotes a total of about 25 minutes to comic relief in the form of a cop called Sparkplug, played by the director. Five full minutes are devoted to Sparkplug losing a set of car keys. There are some weird choices.
The killer himself is fairly frightening—a hulking man with a sack over his head, peering through crudely-cut eyeholes. My only real beef with him is that, through another strange directorial or acting choice, he is constantly doing this labored, heavy breathing into the sack in such a way that he’s sucking the fabric into and out of his mouth and it’s SO weird and distracting. I kept worrying that he was going to suffocate.
I made a gif, I think I can retire from this blog now.
I can’t believe I am this deep into this review and I have yet to mention that Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island is in this movie and she is great. It’s a shame that Dawn Wells was probably so well-known for that wholesome television role that I imagine it was difficult for her to get other work, because she could have had a career as a scream queen—I really thought she did a nice job in her few minutes of camera time in which she screams a bunch, gets shot in the face twice, cries, rolls around in the dirt, falls down, etc. Probably not how she imagined life off the island, huh? Man, that was a joke so bad I feel compelled to leave it in here to shame myself.
Mary Ann is not the only great thing about The Town that Dreaded Sundown, though. I have to say, this movie had one of my favorite kills in all the movies I’ve reviewed here so far: the Phantom Killer, as he comes to be known, has captured a high school couple immediately after the prom, and the young lady happened to be the trombone player in the band. After tying her up with her arms around the trunk of a tree, the killer fastens a knife to the end of the slide on the trombone and repeatedly stabs her. It’s sort of a hilarious scene, though, because he doesn’t just stab her with the end of the slide—he puts the brass mouthpiece up to his mask as though he’s playing the trombone even though there’s no mouth-hole in the sack and it's totally unnecessary. It’s wonderful.
I didn’t know until I did some research after watching The Town that Dreaded Sundown that it was based on a true story (I know, they are all based on a true story) but this one actually stuck fairly closely to the real life events of the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, including the bit about several victims being left alive. I definitely went down the internet rabbit hole reading about the actual crimes of the Texarkana phantom and man, they were pretty brutal. That brings me to my next point:
I also didn't know that this film was just remade and that the remake is just about to be released (or was just recently released, I'm unclear), which was probably why it just popped up on Netflix. This particular remake was apparently conceived and produced by Ryan Murphy, the co-creator of 'American Horror Story', so I am guessing that any degree of subtlety that was exercised in the 1976 original will be off the table entirely. Given how much I liked this version and how much I guiltily enjoy AHS, I’ll probably check out the reboot when I have an opportunity.
The Town that Dreaded Sundown: not my new favorite as expected by the cover art, but definitely not a letdown! Would recommend.