Southern Fried Slasher: THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (AIP 1976)


cracked rear viewer

In 1946, the town of Texarkana, on the Texas-Arkansas border, was rocked by a series of brutal attacks on its citizens from February to May that left five people dead and three seriously wounded. The psycho, who wore what seemed to be a white pillowcase with eyeholes cut in it, caused quite a panic among the townsfolk, and the local and national press had a field day sensationalizing the gruesome events. The case was dubbed “The Texas Moonlight Murders”, and the mysterious maniac “The Phantom Killer”. Famed Texas Ranger M.T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullus was brought in to lead the investigation and rounded up a few suspects, but no one was ever formally charged with the grisly crimes. To this day, the case has never officially been solved.

Forty years later, Texarkana native Charles B. Pierce produced, directed, and costarred in THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, a film based on those…

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Film Review: The Town That Dreaded Sundown (dir by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon)


The_Town_That_Dreaded_Sundown_(2014_film)_poster

The Town That Dreaded Sundown is the latest classic horror remake.  In this case, it’s a remake of a 1976 docudrama about a real-life serial killer who, shortly after World War II, haunted the streets of my former hometown of Texarkana, Texas.  (You can read my review here.)  The original was a low-budget but effectively creepy little film that was shot on the streets of Texarkana and was full of authentic Texas atmosphere.  (It helped that it was directed by Charles B. Pierce, a Texarkana native, as opposed to some jerk from up north.)  What made the film all the more haunting was the fact that — in both the movie and in real life — the Phantom Killer was never captured.

So, how does the remake compare?

*Sigh*

(For the record, I’m not only signing but I’m also massively rolling my mismatched,  heterochromatic eyes.)

Listen, I will give this film credit for attempting to be something more than just your usual horror remake.  It actually does have a fairly clever premise.  Instead of retelling the original story, the remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown begins with a bunch of people in present-day Texarkana sitting around and watching the original film.  There’s even an eccentric character named Charles B. Pierce, Jr. (Denis O’Hare) who we are told is the son of the original director.  It’s a clever idea, one that wisely acknowledges the effectiveness of the original film while also commenting on the continuing mystery surrounding both the identity and the fate of the Phantom Killer.

And, when someone dressed like the original Phantom Killer starts to murder young couples in Texarkana, we — just like the characters — are left to wonder whether it’s the spirit of the Phantom or if it’s someone imitating the murders from the original film or whether it’s something else altogether.

That’s certainly the question faced by Jami (Addison Timlin), who survives being attacked by this new Phantom but then grows obsessed with trying to discover who he is.  Addison Timlin gives a really good performance here.  She’s likable and sympathetic, the perfect “final girl.”

In fact, the entire film is well-cast.  Anthony Anderson is a lot of fun as a cocky Texas Ranger while Gary Cole and Joshua Leonard do good work as members of local law enforcement.  Denis O’Hare, who I will always think of as being Russell on True Blood, brings a certain dissipated nobility to his role.  The victims are all sympathetic and the killer is creepy.

But, with all that in mind, I was disappointed with the remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown.  The reason the original film worked is because it was made by a member of the Texarkana community.  Charles B. Pierce knew the town and he understood why the Phantom Killer continued to haunt the citizens.  What his movie lacked in technical polish, it made up for in authenticity.

Though the remake features a narrator and duplicates the original’s obsession with letting us know whether each scene is taking place on the Texas-side or the Arkansas-side of the town, there’s still absolutely nothing authentic about it.  Whereas the original was filmed entirely on location, the remake was mostly filmed in Shreveport with only three days devoted to getting some location footage of downtown Texarkana.  As someone who has lived in both Shreveport and Texarkana, allow me to assure you that you can totally tell the difference.

The remake was produced by Ryan Murphy (of Glee and American Horror Story fame) and the film really does feel like a lesser season of American Horror Story.  It’s a film that has so little use for subtlety (just check out Edward Herrmann going totally overboard as a hypocritical preacher) that its creepy moments are totally smothered by all the heavy-handed cartoonishness that surrounds them.

Ultimately, the remake fails because it has no feel for or understanding for my homestate.  It was made by people who obviously know nothing about Texas or Arkansas beyond what they’ve seen in other movies produced, directed, and written by other northerners.

The 1976 Town That Dreaded Sundown worked because it was authentic.  Despite a few good ideas, the remake is just too generic to do justice to the original.

 

Lisa Marie Does The Fouke Monster And Five Other Trailers


Isn’t he cute?  That happy little fellow is The Fouke Monster and he’s here because he’s the star of the very first trailer in this week’s edition of Lisa Marie’s Favorite Grindhouse and Exploitation Trailers.

1) The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972)

Before I talk about this trailer, allow me to share a few facts: my family used to live in Fouke, Arkansas!  I’ve been down to Boggy Creek!  I never saw the famous Fouke Monster but I went out looking for him a few times!  Anyway, this is the trailer for The Legend of Boggy Creek, which is a documentary about an apeman that supposedly lives in the area (though, according to Wikipedia, he hasn’t been spotted since ’98 so maybe he drowned or moved to Missouri).  This film is somewhat infamous because it features reenactments of various monster sightings, some of which star people who actually lived in Fouke at the time and who play themselves (and a few of them later sued once the film came out).  It was also the first film directed by Charles B. Pierce, who directed a lot of independent films in Arkansas and North Texas, including the classic The Town That Dreaded Sundown.  Sadly, Pierce passed away last year at the age of 71.

2)  Mean Mother (1974)

This is one of those trailers that I discovered while randomly searching Youtube and, I have to be honest, my first thought was that it was a parody trailer.  But no, after researching the manner, I can say that Mean Mother is a real movie.  It was apparently yet another one of the cinematic offerings of the late Al Adamson.

3) The Night Child (1976)

This Italian film is one of the countless Omen/Exorcist rip-offs that came out in the 70s.  Actually, The Night Child is an indirect rip-off of those two films as it’s actually a rip-off of a previous Italian version of the Exorcist, Beyond The Door.  What I especially love about this trailer is the “Keeping telling yourself, she’s only a child,” line which is obviously meant to recall the “Keep telling yourself, it’s only a movie…” tagline from Last House On The Left.

4) The Young Nurses (1973)

“Meet today’s women…beautiful, liberated, and ready for action!  They’re the young nurses and they’re growing up fast!”  I love the narrator of this trailer.  I’ve heard his voice in several exploitation trailers from the early 70s and he just has a way of delivering the sleaziest lines in the most cheerful, harmless way.  I’d love to know who he was and if he’s still with us.

5) Nosferatu The Vampyre (1980)

Oh.  My.  God.  Okay, I saw this movie a few years ago and I was watching it by myself at 3 in the morning with all the lights off while there was a thunderstorm going on outside and there was this howling wind that kept on making all the windows shake.  I got so scared, it’s not even funny.  This is a remake of the silent classic.  It stars Klaus Kinski, Bruno Ganz, and Isabelle Adjani and was directed by the one and only Werner Herzog.

6) Julia (1974)

“Why don’t you come along and see me this week?  And bring your girlfriend…”  This trailer was specifically designed to promote this film in Australia.  Needless to say, that’s not actually Sylvia Kristel providing the voice over.  

The Kids Are Not All Right: 6 More Trailers That I Love


Continuing my ongoing survey of classic exploitation and grindhouse film trailers, here’s six more.  

1) Simon, King of the Witches — I’ve never seen this film but I caught this trailer on one of the 42nd Street compilation DVDs.  It doesn’t really make me want to see the film but I love the trailer because it is just so totally and utterly shameless.  Seriously, could this thing be more early 70s?  As well, I’ve always wondered — would witches actually have a king?  I mean, seriously, get with the times.

The film, by the way, stars Andrew Prine who apparently had a really promising film career until his girlfriend, Karyn Kupicent, died mysteriously in 1964.  A lot of people believed that Prine killed her though he always denied any guilt and there’s really no evidence to connect him to the crime.  Interestingly, even more people seem to think that Kupicent was murdered because she knew something about John F. Kennedy’s assassination.  Finally, true crime author Steve Hodel has suggested that Kupicent was actually murdered by his father, Dr. George Hodel.  (Steve also claims that George was the Black Dahlia killer, the Zodiac killer, Chicago’s lipstick killer, and that George was responsible for just about every unsolved murder in history.  Oedipus much?)

2) The Town That Dreaded Sundown Though I didn’t consider this while selecting this trailer, this is another film that features the unfortunate Robert Prine.  I’ve seen this film exactly one time when it showed up on late night television once.  Unfortunately, considering that it was 4 in the morning and the movie was obviously heavily edited for television (not to mention that constant commercial interruptions), I didn’t really get to experience the film under ideal circumstances.  As a result, I’ve been trying to track this movie down on DVD ever since.  It’s not an easy film to find.

One of the reasons this movie fascinates me is because it’s not only based on a true unsolved crime but it actually follows the facts of the case fairly closely.  In the late 40s, Texarkana was stalked by a masked gunman known as the Phantom Killer.  The case was never solved and its gone on to become a bit of a local legend in the rural Southwest.  Part of my interest in this case comes from the fact that I grew up in the rural Southwest.  It’s the part of the country I know best and this film was actually filmed in the southwest as opposed to just an arid part of Canada.  Interestingly enough, the Phantom Killer had a lot of similarities to the later Zodiac Killer.  However, as far as I know, Steve Hodel has yet to accuse his father of haunting Texarkana.

The film itself was made by Charles B. Pierce, a filmmaker who was based in Arkansas and made several independent films in that state.  Perhaps this explains why the trailer refers to “Texarkana, Arkansas” even though everyone knows that the only part of Texarkana that matters is the part that’s in Texas.

3) Nightmares in a Damaged Brain This is one of the infamous “video nasties” (trust the English to not only ban movies but to come up with a stupid and annoying label for those movies).  Like many of those films, this is a gory Italian film that seems to bathe in the sordid. 

It’s also fairly difficult film to find.  The DVD I own is actually a copy of the severely cut version that was eventually released in England, of all places.

(Another thing about the English — why is it that a culture that obsessively uses the word “cunt” in casual conversation seems so driven to distraction by a little fake blood?  It’s as if someone told them that banning movies would somehow make up for the attempted genocide of Catholics in Northern Ireland.)   

However, even in cut form, this is a disturbingly dark and frequently depressing film.  Evil seemed to radiate through my entire apartment the whole time I was watching it and that atmosphere is captured in the movie’s trailer.

As a sidenote, the gore effects in this film are credited to Tom Savini.  At the time of the film’s release, Savini announced that he actually had nothing to do with this movie.

4) To the Devil a Daughter — I recently read a biography of Christopher Lee in which he cited this movie, along with the original Whicker Man, as one of his personal favorites.  It was also the film debut of Natassia Kinski, the daughter of Klaus Kinski.  Considering Klaus’s reputation, the title is ironic.

5) Vampire Circus This is another movie that I’ve never seen but I’ve heard great things about it.  Supposedly, its one of the last great Hammer vampire films.  Reportedly, it was controversial at the time of its release because it featured vampires attacking English children.  (Which, if nothing else, at least prevented from growing up to kill little Irish children.)  Seeing the trailer leaves me even more frustrated that it has yet to be released, in the States, on DVD.

6) Dr. Butcher, M.D. — This is actually a rather odd zombie/cannibal film hybrid from Italy.  It was originally titled Zombie Holocaust but the American distributors retitled it Dr. Butcher.  I love this trailer for much the same reason I love the Simon, King of the Witches trailer.  It is just pure and shameless exploitation.  Plus, it features some of the best moments of the great Donal O’Brien’s performance as the “title” character.  I recently forced my sister Erin to watch Zombie Holocaust.  Ever since, whenever I start to ramble too much, she simply looks at me and says, “Lisa’s annoying me.  About to perform removal of vocal chords…”  She actually does a fairly good impersonation.  Consider this just more proof that the Grindhouse brings families closer together.