I don’t know how many of our readers are “children of the 70s” like me, but, those that are should remember that decade’s fascination with the docudrama. While it’s still a viable and oft-used gimmick in television (look no further than the myriad survival shows and sordid news magazines), back in the 70s, the docudrama was a very popular film sub-genre, with movies like The Legend of Boggy Creek, Beyond and Back, and, my personal favorite of the bunch, Boggy Creek director Charles B. Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown, offering moviegoers “true” tales of horror, the supernatural, and, in the case of the latter, a sobering story of a small town shattered by the vicious crimes of the all-too-human Phantom Killer.
Based on a series of brutal murders that paralyzed the town of Texarkana, Texas between the months of February and May of 1946, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a “creative” dramatization of said events, mostly adhering to the facts about the case, but spicing things up for audience consumption with touches of humor (dumb cops/dumber criminals) and stalk-and-slash tropes (first person POV/imaginative methods of dispatching victims, etc).
Presented in pseudo-documentary style (replete with humorously overplayed narration), the film focuses on its composite hero, Deputy Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine); an everyman small town cop who, after answering the call on a vicious attack at the local lover’s lane, suddenly finds himself at the center of the most horrific crime spree in his sleepy little burg’s history.
It isn’t long before the killer strikes again, this time assaulting a young couple who made the unfortunate decision to go out driving in the rain. The kids stop to let the rain pass, but are soon set upon by The Phantom, who chases them into the woods and guns them down. As it happens, Deputy Ramsey is passing by, and stops to investigate the abandoned car. When he hears gunshots in the distance, Ramsey charges into the woods, shotgun in tow, but he’s too late; the young couple are dead, and the masked man has circled around him and escaped in his victim’s vehicle.
Ramsey’s superiors decide it’s time to call in the big guns, and request the assistance of Captain Morales (the great Ben Johnson); a legendary investigator and Texas Ranger, who takes command of the investigation, and, in addition to raising the police presence, places the town under a strict curfew. Despite his efforts, The Phantom strikes again, this time brutally slaying another young couple after a well-guarded dance.
Matters go from bad to worse as, in addition to The Phantom, Morales and Ramsey have to contend with an assortment of crazies all claiming to be the killer, as well as an increasingly tense and terrified population demanding that the man responsible for the murders is brought to justice.
Equal parts documentary, cornball procedural, and highly effective proto-slasher, TTTDS is one of my favorite true crime/horror hybrids of all time. Yes, it’s occasionally goofy, and, save for Prine and Johnson, most of the performances are as wooden as a totem pole (to be expected since many of the extras and bit performers were culled from the local populous), but it’s also an entertaining, absorbing, and scary little flick that features one of the creepiest and perverse (murder by trombone, anyone?!) antagonists of the seventies. To put it succinctly, I fucking love this movie to pieces.
TTTDS has been near-impossible to find on any “official” medium since the days of VHS, but, thanks to Scream Factory, the film has been rescued from obscurity, and is now available as a Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack! Now, for some reason, Scream Factory has opted not to count this one among their Collector’s Edition releases, but, considering both the quality of the transfer, as well as the absolute haul of quality extras, I can’t imagine why!
First up, the feature is presented in a glorious 2.35:1 1080p transfer that, while technically not perfect, looks dynamite. There’s a touch more grain and signs of print damage here than one would expect from a Scream Factory release, but, to be honest, I think it fits in just great with the film’s faux documentary aesthetic. I’ve watched the film a few times recently on Turner Classic Movies in HD and was wowed by how great it looked, and the quality of this transfer is easily on par. Paired with its very clean and well mixed 2.0 DTS HD soundtrack, this is the best TTTDS is likely to look or sound for the foreseeable future.
The extras, meanwhile, are an absolute treat. We get a feature length commentary track with moderator, Justin Beahm, and his guest, Phantom Killer-case expert, Jim Presley, who offers a tremendous amount of insight into the true events that inspired the film, and points out where fact and fiction meet and divide throughout the course of the movie. It’s an exceptional commentary, and a must for true crime buffs.
Also included are interview featurettes (in HD) with Andrew Prine and “Mary Ann Summers”, herself, Dawn Wells, each fondly recalling their experiences shooting the film, with Prine waxing nostalgic about his relationship with the film’s director, Pierce, and their drunken escapades, while Wells talks about her disturbing and pivotal scene in the film’s third act – a far cry from Gilligan’s Island indeed! A third interview segment features director of photography, James Robertson, who discusses the challenges low-budget filmmaking.
Rounding out the TTTDS-specific extras are a stills gallery (HD), a text essay, and the film’s theatrical trailer (HD).
The aforementioned extras alone make this release a more than worthwhile investment for fans of the film, but Scream Factory’s gone and included an entire extra movie as a bonus! That’s right; the DVD also features Pierce’s 1979 thriller, The Evictors, starring genre faves Michael Parks, Jessica Harper, and Vic Morrow! Yet another “based on true events” tale from Pierce, this film centers around a young couple running afoul of the locals in a small Louisiana town after they rent a house with a violent and mysterious past. I’d never seen the film prior to this release, and I’ve got to say that not only does The Evictors serve as a nice companion piece to TTTDS, but it’s a film that’s easily worthy of a release all its own. It’s a creepily atmospheric and downright scary little flick, and the fact that Scream Factory offers this one up as a “throw-in” just blows my mind! I think it goes without say that this set gets my absolute highest recommendation.