2014 saw Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s meta-sequel to Charles B. Pierce’s cult classic, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, proving that the unsolved ‘Texarkana Moonlight Murders’ remain an uncomfortable mystery to this day. Finally the original 1976 film get’s its gorgeous Blu-Ray release, and the film looks better than ever.
Pierce’s proto-slasher appeared as the sub-genre was just taking shape: two years before Carpenter’s Halloween popularised the mode, yet two years after Clark’s Black Christmas. The window was wide and the rules hadn’t quite been set in stone. Pierce decided to again utilise documentary styling as he did in The Legend of Boggy Creek (1974); a film which isn’t as much focused on monsters as it is with keen social commentary.
Narrated by Vern Stierman, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, opens with the end of WW2; the G.I.’s have returned and are granted college entry by a government sanction. Pierce points out how empty the barracks are, how America’s young working class forces are turning from nationalism to education. He doesn’t point a finger, but he does raise a question about the Phantom Killer’s possible army affiliations. The psychological questions float in the air and no one seems to know what they are dealing with. It’s a confusing post-war terror that the countryside wasn’t ready for.
Like its new-age threat, The Town That Dreaded Sundown seems like a fresh genre trying to find its feet: documentary aesthetics, intense graphic horror imagery, and a title straight out of a western. Pierce is vaguely cynical towards the western vibe though, at points his film feels like a farewell to a certain idyll; as though the original murders destroyed a kind of romantic innocence for America and his film embodies the death of one genre and birth of another, darker, more psychological one.
As for brutality, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is as visceral as it was back in 1976, especially in the new Blu-Ray. Cleaning up the shadows and sharpening the picture reveals much detail lost on DVD. Thank God too, because Pierce’s use of shadow and minimal lighting is exquisite. The unabashed documentary realism is intense and more graphic than you might expect. But then, so were the murders. Pierce summons images which feel like memories of murder, as opposed to simple cinematic visuals. At the end of most attacks, there is an image which sticks, some fabricated, some not, but they all feel loaded with the ferocity of the killer. Visually, this is a gorgeous film stuck somewhere between night and dusk, the potential horrors of the morning hidden by the stretches of nature around the sleepy town of Texarkana.
The film doesn’t retain the fascination or outright brutality of its early scenes though. Pierce has an axe to grind with the local police, who he paints as farcical in the later half of the film. If the intention had been to craft a horror film, Pierce would have failed, however the genre hybridity leaves room and pace for rumination over the police involvement and failure on the case. Pierce’s randomly used slow-motion sequences are superb, highlighting moments of fate when the killer was almost in their grasp.
The legacy of the original murders is somehow kept alive by Pierce’s film and the fact that the original Lover’s Lane murderer was never apprehended. Like Fincher’s Zodiac, this film has a chip on its shoulder; that the killer is alive, free, and may very well be in the audience.
Dir: Charles B. Pierce
Stars: Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Dawn Wells, Bud Davis