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John’s Horror Corner: The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976), basically the Texas Chainsaw LITE beer of classic slasher cinema.

January 6, 2019

MY CALL: Yes, it’s a classic. But if this movie was a beer, it would be called Texas Chainsaw LITE. Just take TCM and replace the dire sense of dread with a light feeling of menace. MOVIES LIKE The Town That Dreaded Sundown: Well, there’s the 2014 remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown. But for more transformative classic slasher movies, I’d direct you to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Black Christmas (1974) and Halloween (1978).

In the wake of World War II, the once optimistic residents of Texarkana are rattled by a series of attacks in 1946. Local Deputy Ramsey (Andrew Prine; The Evil, Amityville II, Lords of Salem) assists Captain Morales (Ben Johnson; Terror Train, The Swarm) to hunt down the serial killer.

Purportedly based on a true story (presented in the movie itself, and actually based on The Texarkana Moonlight Murders and the Phantom Killer) and released directly in between The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Black Christmas (1974) and Halloween (1978), director Charles B. Pierce (The Legend of Boggy Creek, Boggy Creek II, The Evictors) approaches the heavy-breathing Leatherface stylings of Tobe Hooper and strongly influences the eventual The Prowler (1981), The Burning (1981) and Friday the 13th part II (1981). However, this film’s quality falls quite short of its peers of the time.

LEFT: Jason Voorhees, 1981
RIGHT: The Phantom Killer, 1976

Panting so hard that his crude mask flows back and forth over his mouth, our killer may seem hammed up as he brandishes a car’s torn spark plugs before a young couple now unable to make their escape. He stops and menacingly stares at them as they scream, providing every advantage for them to flee much as we’d later see done by Myers and Voorhees. But unlike the slashers of 1978 onward, this killer has no particularly great physical strength or unstoppability. Much as in Black Christmas (1974), he seems to just be a regular but crazy guy with a penchant for killing.

Typical of the era, the violent act of killing (or stabbing) victims occurs off-screen after giving chase. But this film tried a few times to be brutal, and probably sort of was for 1976 considering how few movies like this there were at the time. Of the first two victims, one is dragged through the jagged broken glass of a car window, and we learn (but don’t see) that the other had her back, stomach and breasts perversely bitten and chewed. But this film, unlike TCM, is also rather light and hokey most of the time with an almost Dukes of Hazzard (1979-1985) kind of humor. Moreover, with narration throughout the film and scoring akin to the tone of an old Disney movie along with very weak plot development, this almost felt like a long 1970s TV show episode of some cops chasing a rascally crook.

Despite the title, most of the film takes place in daylight—making for a far from dire atmosphere as this captured none of heaviness of Tobe Hooper’s daytime horror. Honestly, when the killer isn’t on screen the atmosphere is rather limp. And even when he is, it’s hit or miss at best. The fact that the killer occasionally uses a gun really takes me out of it, and the trombone death scene was more stupid than creative, even if it depicted the sick mentality of the killer.

I must admit that some of my earlier reviews of classic horror weren’t overly fair—e.g., I spat venom at Black Christmas (1974) for feeling completely un-intense when, truly, it practically created the slasher subgenre after Psycho (1960). Presently I try to focus on these now seemingly tame films (by today’s standards at least) and treat them more like art history as I did with Suspiria (1977) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). But honestly, I felt that this film did very little well. And I muse the only reason it is referenced for its influence on subsequent slasher films may simply be by virtue of its release at the dawn of the “rise of the modern slasher” era (right behind Black Christmas). Still, it has left its mark in slasher cinema history and deserves some recognition. And that some is all I’m willing to afford it as it strikes me as inferior among its peers released several years earlier or past.

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