Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: The Town That Dreaded Sundown
Every so often, our appreciation of cheesy movies leads us to singular filmmakers like Ed Wood and Hal Warren. Men who believed their art was more important than the particulars of filmmaking. Cannon Films boss Menahem Golan also subscribed to the notion movies could be successful without the rigor required to make them good. But then we occasionally find a filmmaker who strives for quality and yet somehow lacks an essential X-Factor for movie making. One such man was Charles B. Pierce.
Pierce knew he was going to make pictures from the moment he started making quick little movies as a teenager with a disused 8mm camera. He learned set decoration on movies like The Phantom Tollboth and eventually became a director of regional commercials in the Texarkana area of Texas and Arkansas. Pierce eventually parlayed his success as a commercial director into an opportunity to make a feature. By which I mean he convinced his biggest client to fund a portion of his debut effort, The Legend of Boggy Creek. The 1972 film was a surprise smash and one of the most commercially successful independent films of its time. Consequently, distributors hoped he would make a sequel. Instead, he made a handful of westerns and this weekend’s cheesy movie: The Town That Dreaded Sundown.
The plot concerns the real-life case of the Phantom Killer (with a certain artistic license taken with specifics). In 1946, an unknown assailant began attacking and then murdering young people in and around Texarkana. The first attack, dated in the film as March 3rd (February 22nd in reality), saw the two victims survive. But 21 days later, his subsequent attack proved to be lethal as sheriff’s deputies found the male victim shot and the female victim tied to a tree and then shot. Deputy Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine) happened to see the killer leave in a black-colored car, but failed to catch up with him. In the wake of the two attacks, the country sheriff and Texarkana police call for the aid ofCaptain J.D. “Lone Wolf” Morales (Ben Johnson), an expert investigator and famed Texas Ranger. With the aid of Ramsey, he surmises the killer will strike again in 21 days. On April 14th, the town is warned to stay in their homes, but the high school organizes a Senior and Junior Prom anyway. After the prom ends, the Phantom manages to find a pair of victims, trombone player Peggy Loomis and her boyfriend Roy Allen, at the park in the middle of town. He kills Roy and proceeds to tie Peggy to a tree and stab her repeatedly after affixing a knife to her trombone.
With the city and county in a panic, more and more people lock their doors in fear of the killer as all of Morales’s efforts to find him fail.
On May 3rd, the Phantom strikes at the home of Helen Reed (Dawn Wells), a Texarkana resident whom the killer spotted leaving a local store. Later that night, he shoots her husband Floyd and manages to shoot Helen several times. Remarkably, she survives, fleeing her home and finding aid with a neighbor. Stymied, the Phantom misses his next scheduled hit. Soon after, Morales and Ramsey encounter the Phantom at a sand pit. Morales manages to shoot the Phantom several times, but the killer evades capture. The killings stop, but the film ominously suggests he still lives in Texarkana into the 1970s.
And if the plot summary feels like an Unsolved Mysteries recreation, that’s part of the charm. Pierce’s film style is very similar to the sorts of crime scene reenactments popularized by Unsolved and Dateline. Pierce could have made a fine living working for NBC had those programs existed in the early 1970s, but in lieu of them, he defined his own docudrama aesthetic in both Sundown and Boggy Creek. But as the earlier film utilized interviews of Fouke, Arkansas area residents who claimed to have seen a Bigfoot-like creature in the local swamps, Sundown shifts between its fictionalized investigation of the case and narrator Vern Stierman offering updates about the case’s effect on the town. The episodic nature prevents Sundown from feeling like a proper slasher film and more like something out of an earlier era. Granted, it is a precursor of the slasher genre by several years.
Aiding the antiquated feel is the tin-ear dialogue of screenwriter Earl E. Smith and Pierce’s inability to stage dialogue scenes in a convincing manner. Something as seemingly simple as a scene of two teenagers deciding to go neck at the lake seems forced and unnatural with Pierce’s close-ups of the individual actors leaving the impression that the coverage was shot weeks apart. Strangely, this goes double for Stierman’s narration, which has the overall impression of a serious news report, but seems out of place with the depiction of the killings.
But perhaps the cheesiest element of Sundown is its inconsistent tone. The Peggy Loomis murder is a surprisingly effective sequence with the trombone stabbing — a creation of the filmmakers — offering some legitimate chills. Unfortunately, it’s proceeded by a silly sequence in which some of the male Texarkana police officers go in drag to act as decoys during the night of April 14th. One officer in particular, played by Pierce, finds himself accosted and grouped by his partner (recurring Pierce player Jimmy Clem). In fact, all of the scenes in which Pierce plays Patrolman A.C. Benson are played for laughs, but few jokes land as Pierces training in advertising seemingly never taught him the importance of timing or tone. A car chase featuring Benson behind the wheel is particularly terrible. It even introduces a Hal Needham-style slow motion gag as Benson drives his patrol call into a creek.
Sadly, by introducing slo-mo in this manner, Pierce makes its use when Morales shoots the Phantom an unintentionally funny moment. But that’s part of the fun of The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Its odd mix of docudrama and slasher film leaves the film wide open for a lot of unintentional guffaws. A scene in which Morales talks to a prison psychiatrist leaves the impression that the viewer is an uninvited guest. Just before the second attack, Ramsey is seen losing control of his car, but it is not played for the laughs. Stierman’s stilted narration begs to be riffed. And when all of those factors are wrapped up in Pierce’s characteristic sincerity, the result is a slow-burn cheese classic.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown is currently available to stream with an Amazon Prime membership or on Vudu. It’s also available to rent on YouTube, Google Play and iTunes and as a Blu-ray combo pack from Scream Factory.