The Town That Dreaded Sundown: A B-Movie Docudrama

It’s time to take another look at a classic bit of Southern-fried drive-in horror that isn’t really horror at all. Or maybe it is.

At the time of its release, The Town that Dreaded Sundown was boosted by a dark and creepy ad campaign, complete with screaming teens, shotgun blasts, ominous narration, and flashes of a man wearing a pillow case over his head. The TV spot made it THE film everyone was too scared to see, but absolutely HAD to see. That lasted about a week. Then we all kinda forgot about it. With director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s updated reboot set for release later this year, the original AIP drive-in almost-classic is finally starting to get the attention it may or may not deserve.

Back in the mid-70s, a string of gritty Southern-fried horror films and grim action dramas, from Macon County Line to Poor Pretty Eddie to the Walking Tall series, found huge success at American drive-ins. Much of that success was fueled in no small part by the irresistible tagline, “Based on a True Story,” a claim touted by most of them. Most of them were not, in fact, based on true stories, but tell Northern audiences any crazy shit you like about some nasty goings on in the South and by golly they’ll believe it. Same holds true for Southern audiences.

One of the things that makes drive-in auteur Charles B. Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown standout was that it actually was based on a true story. Over a three-month period in the spring of 1946, a hooded killer murdered five people in Texarkana, Arkansas,  and seriously wounded another half-dozen. The Texarkana Moonlight Murders, as they were known, made national news at the time and led to an unprecedented manhunt, but the killer was never caught. And there, essentially, is the plot of the movie.

Pierce, who’d had a huge hit a couple years earlier with his Texas-based pseudo Bigfoot docudrama The Legend of Boggy Creek, decided to approach the material here in much the same way. In order to give the picture a sense of authenticity,he filmed on location in Arkansas, hired mostly non-professional actors (with the exception of Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, and Gilligan’s Island’s Dawn Wells), and used a narrator throughout to lay down the cold facts and set the scene. To this end the film opens with a kind of newsreel, in which we learn what life in Texarkana was like in the months following the end of WWII (in a nutshell, “good”).

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Then things get ugly. “The events you are about to see actually happened,” the narrator assures us. Then in standard ass-coverage form he adds, “Only the names have been changed.”

In what was already a dried up horror film cliche by this point, a young couple is parked on a deserted Lover’s Lane when a large man with a pillowcase over his head shambles out of the woods and attacks them. He beats the boy senseless with a rock (make what you will of the fact that the boy’s name is “Samuel Fuller”), and though he does not rape the girl, he does chew her up pretty good. Yup, just kinda gnaws on her for awhile.

Exactly three weeks later on another secluded Lover’s Lane, the guy in the hood (whom I’m still convinced was the Elephant Man) decides to make things easier on himself by simply shooting the parked couple with a shotgun. In the meantime we’re introduced to the Texarkana Sherrif’s Dept., a genial, laid-back lot of good ol’ boys whose daily routine mostly involves dealing with assorted zany high-spirited locals, and so don’t know what in tarnation to make of all this “hooded killer” business. While using non-professional actors was and remains standard for low-budget docudramas, watching this today, it starts to feel at times like an extended special episode of America’s Most Wanted.

Not knowing what else to do after the second couple is attacked, the sheriff (Andrew Prine) asks the State of Texas for help, which arrives in the form of Capt. J.D. Morales (Johnson), and that’s where the picture takes a strange and sharp left turn. Before his arrival, Morales is neatly and conveniently summed up by a deputy as, “The Lone Wolf of the Texas Rangers! The most famous criminal investigator in the country! The greatest Ranger there is!” So there you go. 

Now, Ben Johnson is a screen legend, a fine and charismatic actor, a man who was in Every Western Ever Made. But from the moment he steps off the train here something’s a little off. His delivery and inflection, as well as his movements, are stilted and over-rehearsed. It’s almost as if Johnson, finding himself surrounded by amateurs, starts spouting his lines like an amateur, either in an effort to fit in or an effort to avoid making his fellow actors feel bad. Or maybe he’s just getting into the docudrama spirit of things.

That’s not the only weird thing. Morales is kind of a pushy asshole in a white suit and white cowboy hat (though everyone in Texarkana seems to be wearing a white suit and cowboy hat, so that’s kind of an irrelevant point), and everybody in town kowtows to him. He’s a great and powerful and important man who’s there to save the day, so of course a young, eager, and incompetent new officer named Sparkplug (played by Pierce himself) is assigned to be his driver.

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Well, the wacky hijinx ensue and the film takes on a decidedly comic tone as Morales attempts to carry out his murder investigation amid all of Spark Plug’s bumbling antics. At one point Pierce even gives a nod to Ed Wood (after killing off Sam Fuller) by having Sparkplug dress in clumsy drag to go on a stakeout. The music changes as well, with the low and ominous horror film score of the first third replaced by something that sounds like it was lifted from The Brady Bunch.

Then in the midst of all the hilarity the narrator returns and we’re presented with another long and brutal attack.

For the last two-thirds of the picture, that’s how it works. We cut back and forth from dumb comedy to savage murder to a portrait of a town growing increasingly paranoid, then back to comedy again. It’s kind of exhausting. I mean, it’s fascinating in a way, but it’s hard to tell exactly how Pierce was expecting us to take all this. At one point he even throws in the obligatory Southern police chase (complete with cartoon banjo music) ending with a cop car driving off an open bridge and splashing into a shallow river as the actors mug for the camera. It’s as if he had a checklist of everything that was required for making a hit drive-in feature set in the South, from dull-witted cops to ugly violence to cowboy hats. Lots and lots of cowboy hats.

The only thing that’s missing is the satisfying ending, though most of the Southern-fried genre pictures of the time leaned more toard the downbeat for some reason. In this case Pierce sticks true to history, as the narrator warns us that some people are convinced the killer is still alive, still out there, still walking the streets unnoticed.

And that brings us to the recent reboot, which involves an identical string of killings that begin in Texarkana 65 years after the original spree. As I watched Pierce’s film for the first time in a very long time recently, I found myself thinking, “Well, maybe the reboot will be better than this.” But you know what? No it won’t.

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2.5 out of 5