The Town That Dreaded Sundown has been called Charles B. Pierce’s most accomplished achievement but that has little relevance in a career awash with films that would make Ed Wood proud. Daniel Stephens takes a closer look…
Charles B. Pierce is, for my money, up there with the best bad filmmakers of the 20th century. Okay, he might not be quite in the league of Ed Wood but if Uwe Boll was making movies in the 1970s, he’d have a run for his money. I hadn’t had the misfortune of seeing Pierce’s “cult classic” The Town That Dreaded Sundown on its release in 1976 but after finally sitting down to watch it I’m only thankful to dumb luck for helping me avoid it in the proceeding 40 years. I had, however, endured some of his other works from the time including 1979’s horrible The Norseman and Pierce’s 1972 directorial feature debut The Legend of Boggy Creek. The latter continues to appear in my list of worst films ever seen through these bespectacled eyes.
Of course, we must take the “cult classic” tag with a pinch of salt. It does, after all, have a varied and rather ambiguous connotation. Ed Wood’s Plan 9 for Outer Space, the Citizen Kane of the bad movie world, is a cult classic for goodness sake! The Town That Dreaded Sundown, unlike its similarly specifically titled bigger brother The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, should be remembered for the wrong reasons. Both feature screaming girls trying to, and in many cases, failing to divert the attractions of a sadistic killer, both clad their principle head case in a mask, and both are set in the state of Texas. But the similarities end there.
Pierce’s film is set in 1946 and based on real events. America is in a state of flux after the Second World War. People are willing to let their guard down after a long period of war, while new commercial industries are beginning to change the cultural landscape. However, there’s a sadist at work in the small town of Texarkana. He attacks and savagely beats a young couple before taking the lives of another man and woman a few weeks later. While there’s a pattern to his actions and targets, his masked face leaves the police without any leads prompting them to call on the help of the master criminal investigator Captain J. D. “Lone Wolf” Morales. Yet, even with his help, the attacks keep occurring.
The set-up has the trappings of a taught thriller. With The Texas Chainsaw Massacre having only being released a couple of years previously, there’s even plenty of opportunity to exploit the genre’s rejuvenated reputation at the box office. But Pierce blows his opportunity through a series of inept stylistic choices, poor judgement and pacing, and odd indecision towards the tone of the film. Texas lends itself to an atmospheric, sun-kissed cinematic aesthetic; Tobe Hooper utilised it so well to sap the energy and add to the claustrophobia of his film but Pierce prefers to layer his external shots with exposition-filled voice-over before whisking us inside for soap opera staging and misguided shots of humour.
Narration is a favoured approach by Pierce whose inability to tell his story visually or through the actions of his characters is a glaring creative omission from his technical armoury but he also has a problem with tone. While the distracting voice-over hits you over the head with descriptive introduction to the next event, The Town That Dreaded Sundown injects a series of comic moments into proceedings that feel alien within the confines of what is ostensibly a murder-mystery. If I were to describe the film as being Grease meets David Fincher’s Seven by way of Porky’s and The Cannonball Run, you’ll realise how odd the film is at times. Perhaps that description is the exact reason why people want to see Pierce’s movie. All I can say is: save your money!
Written by Daniel Stephens
Directed by: Charles B. Pierce
Written by: Earl E. Smith
Starring: Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Dawn Wells
Country: USA / IMDB
The Town That Dreaded Sundown is released on Blu-ray in the UK August 24th courtesy of Eureka Video.