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For me that's often the best way to approach a film – bereft of pre-conceptions ...
on 30 July 2015
An iconic horror title that has recently received a major Hollywood remake (from the people behind Paranormal Activity and Insidious), this 1970s serial killer feature is naturally due a re-release. It's a film that I had heard of a few times before, but knew very little of. For me that's often the best way to approach a film – bereft of pre-conceptions and able to make my own judgements on its merits as I see them. Charles B. Pierce's piece in set just a year after World War Two and loosely based on real events in and around the town of Texarkana, with 'The Phantom Killer' claiming eight victims between late February and May 1946.
Now I have said elsewhere in some of my reviews that I'm not much of a fan of 'based on a true story' movies, so with that borne in mind this is a decent entry into that genre. The killer himself – with a mask that might have been later borrowed for the filming of The Orphanage – strikes around every three weeks over a spring filled with fear and paranoia in the town of Texarkana. I think that's where the film is probably strongest – the unease is almost palpable among the townsfolk, especially when a special investigator is brought in to help crack the crimes. For a relatively early entry into the slasher genre, the movie captures this aspect really well.
Unfortunately there are a few things that – for me – rather hamstring this movie, first of which is the totally overdone narration throughout. The movie could very easily have stood without this, and ultimately it feels somewhat patronising towards the viewer. We can perfectly well see what's going on without the heavy-handed 'tell not show' device. Some of the efforts at humour in the movie feel really forced – including Pierce's on-screen turn as 'Sparkplug' Benson – and undermine the mood and atmosphere that is generally presented on-screen. The acting on the whole is serviceable, but the victims in particular fall into that 'scream queen' era of things – your ears are suddenly assaulted when it comes to The Phantom claiming his kills.
The film I couldn't help comparing this to was the much later Summer of Sam, which positively bottled the effect that a serial killer can have a community and the people within it. And that better than anything sums up where The Town That Dreaded Sundown falls short – we are either spending time with the police in their efforts to crack the case, which are decent but overall lack real intricacy and depth, and when we are not following them we briefly meet our victims, with a perfunctory voiceover introduction, before The Phantom strikes. There's a shortage of emotional investment that means the murders don't really mean that much to the viewer, because there's so little feeling towards the victims. Made at a time when the slasher genre was in its infancy, the movie has an interesting kind of rawness but also makes many of the fundamental mistakes that, frankly, continue to be made in the sub-genre. With that said, there was plenty of promise here and it left me very interested to see what a – perhaps – wiser modern handling of this concept might produce.
The Town that Dreaded Sundown a watchable movie in its own right, but for me it doesn't really hit the rating of horror classic. The sense of urban paranoia could perhaps have been exploited more, with an increased focus on the people of Texarkana, rather than the police manhunt which really felt dry in places. There's enough to like here to keep you in your seat, but this burgeoning sub-genre would be done better in the future, and indeed the not-too-distant future. Perhaps TTTDS is ultimately more for slasher afficianados that it is essential viewing for all horror fans.
This could undoubtedly have been a higher rating, given the atmosphere that so often pervades the film. But it loses points throughout for overbearing narration, unnecessary and forced humour and a slightly infuriating finale. I can't help but think to myself that less would have been more in this piece.