DirectorCharles B. Pierce
Release Date(s)1977 (May 21, 2013)
Studio(s)American International Pictures (Scream Factory/Shout! Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: A
When writing about movies, music or any art form, you’re dealing in opinions and variables. What works for me might not work for you and vice versa. However, I believe we can all agree that it is an undeniable, empirical fact that The Town That Dreaded Sundown has one of the best posters ever created for a horror movie.
This key art does everything a good poster should. It’s simple, eye-catching, and foreboding. If you like horror movies, you want to see this movie yesterday. If you don’t, you already know you don’t ever want to see this one because it’s going to be too much for you. But if we’re being honest, the poster is probably the single biggest contributor to this movie’s enduring legacy.
Based on the true-crime tale of the Phantom Killer who terrorized Texarkana in 1946, the movie was produced and directed by Charles B. Pierce, the maverick filmmaker who had earlier mined local lore for the highly successful The Legend Of Boggy Creek. Ben Johnson stars as legendary Texas Ranger J.D. Morales, assigned to the case when the local law enforcement fails to apprehend the killer.
As long as The Town That Dreaded Sundown focuses on its hooded Phantom Killer (played effectively by stuntman Bud Davis), it’s actually pretty good. The Phantom is an imposing villain and Pierce films these scenes for all they’re worth, generating real suspense even when it borders on the absurd.
But whenever the Phantom Killer isn’t around, the movie stumbles. Johnson and deputy sheriff Andrew Prine’s investigation isn’t particularly compelling since there aren’t any clues for them to investigate. Most of the police work is conveyed via heavy-handed, Dragnet-style narration that gets more than a little tiresome. Pierce himself provides some unwanted comic relief as “Sparkplug”, an inept patrolman assigned as Johnson’s driver. In the end, it’s almost as if two completely different movies were pieced together in the editing room. There’s enough here to justify its cult reputation but it’s definitely a bumpy, disjointed ride.
The latest entry in the Scream Factory lineup looks surprisingly terrific in HD. I first saw The Town That Dreaded Sundown a few years ago at the New Beverly here in Los Angeles and the print seemed a little worse for wear. The Scream team has located the best available elements for this release. There are some signs of age but overall, this is an extremely impressive transfer. The audio is in its original mono and it’s fine for what it is.
The extras kick off with an informative audio commentary by Justin Beahm and local historian Jim Presley focusing primarily on the real-life case. The track has a lot of valuable information and adds some nice local color to the movie. Three interview featurettes catch up with Andrew Prine, actress Dawn Wells and cinematographer James Roberson, all of whom have fond memories of the film and working with the late Pierce. The Blu-ray also includes the theatrical trailer, a gallery of stills and posters, and a well-written essay by Brian Albright entitled The Phantom Of Texarkana.
The DVD in the combo pack includes all of the above as well as a bonus movie, Pierce’s The Evictors from 1979. I can already hear some people complaining that The Evictors isn’t in HD. To you I say, you’ve probably never even heard of this movie until just now, so shut up. Michael Parks and Jessica Harper star as a couple who purchase a house in Louisiana whose former occupants regularly wound up terrorized, stalked and killed by the original owners. Top-billed Vic Morrow plays the alternately helpful and shady real estate agent who brokers the deal. Very little about The Evictors makes much sense but it’s kind of fun. This obscurity probably didn’t warrant its own Scream Factory release but it’s a great bonus feature.
The version of The Town That Dreaded Sundown that you’ve imagined is probably better than the movie you actually get. Even so, it’s an intermittently entertaining cult favorite and a worthy addition to the consistently outstanding Scream Factory lineup.
- Dr. Adam Jahnke