Sunday, September 09, 2007
He Lurks The Streets Of Texarkana
If you liked ZODIAC, you might want to give 1976's THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN a spin. It’s not as good as ZODIAC, but it’s a story of a notorious, never-caught serial killer told documentary-style, and director Charles B. Pierce’s depictions of the murders are just as creepy as David Fincher’s in ZODIAC. Unfortunately, Pierce also tries to ruin his movie by adding unwanted and unfunny comic relief in the form of an inept local policeman who loses his car keys and drives his car into a lake during a hot pursuit. This awful comic relief character is portrayed by one Charles B. Pierce—the director—which explains why it’s in the movie.
Set in 1946, the titular town is Texarkana, which was victimized by a string of serial killings perpetrated by a strong, large predator who wore a sack over his head and attacked couples necking on various “lover’s lanes.” In real life, the murderer was known as the “Phantom Killer,” and he was never caught. THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (a wonderful title, by the way) splits its time between the attacks themselves (three victims survived, but none could identify their assailant) and the investigation, led by Texas Ranger Morales (Ben Johnson) and deputy Ramsey (Andrew Prine). Both ends are handled quite well, even if Pierce does fudge the facts somewhat in pursuit of more suspense (the infamous “trombone attack,” for instance, I don’t believe occurred, nor did the climactic chase).
It’s hard to tell from this film whether Pierce is a good director or not. On one hand, the realistic documentary style and his confident handling of the various nighttime attacks—particularly an assault at the home of Helen Reed (Dawn Wells, but you know her as Mary Ann on GILLIGAN'S ISLAND) and her husband—are effective in raising goosebumps. On the other, a smart filmmaker—or, perhaps, a more humble one—would know not to soil his thriller with DUKES OF HAZZARD-style humor that has no place in this type of film. I can’t say that the slapstick ruins the film—the good parts are just too good—but it is an irritant. Pierce previously had much success with THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, which was a serious look at a Bigfoot-type monster that portrayed itself as an actual documentary.