One of the final scenes in The Town That Dreaded Sundown shows a queue building outside a movie theatre showing The Town That Dreaded Sundown. This meta conclusion to what is a part-documentary, part-dramatic reconstruction of supposed real events leaves you in a mood of frustrated disappointment, but it does somehow underline much of what you may have suspected while watching.
The real events that this film concerns itself with are several unsolved murders and attacks that took place in the small Arkansas town of Texarkana that became known as The Moonlight Murders. As the local force struggles to gain a foothold in the investigation and with any leads drying up, a revered Texas Ranger is called in to assist. With the names of those involved changed, and actual case details clearly scarce, writer Earl E. Smith and director Charles B. Pierce had plenty of scope for narrative indulgence; to build tension and develop the characters. Sadly, what they created is wearily formulaic, full of characters comparable in incompetence to Sheriff J.W. Pepper and worst of all, is just rather dull.
If you are a fan of close-up shots of sinister, booted feet or of police cars screeching repetitively around country roads then Sundown may well be your kind of film. Any mystery is dispensed with early on due to the knowledge that the killer is never caught, and apart from some blunt wordplay which vaguely implies a suspect there is little thought given by the filmmakers to a part of the story you would think important. What remains is a disjointed number of set pieces as the police incompetently hunt their masked prey and succeed only in distancing the audience.
Pierce attempts to weave his stop/start narrative together with an off camera voiceover designed to give the film a real-life documentary style. While this exposition does assist the viewer with the timeline and who’s who, it adds nothing to the plot and gives the film an amateurish quality that may actually be intentional, but likely isn’t. Sundown does appear cheap throughout from the pop-up, cardboard-like sets to the random variations in lighting as night becomes day, then becomes night again in no time at all. Everything has the impression of either being rushed or not thought through, and as such the film never fully engages the viewer.
There is a certain nostalgia to The Town That Dreaded Sundown, but this isn’t enough in itself to warrant more than a passing interest. That it developed a cult status in the ‘80s is likely down to a lack of availability leading to people’s heightened, rose-tinted memories and a subsequent false demand rather than anything within the film itself. A production that is as confused and confusing as the mystery it tries to document.
THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (1976) / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR: CHARLES B. PIERCE / SCREENPLAY: EARL E. SMITH / STARRING: BEN JOHNSON, ANDREW PRINE, DAWN WELLS, JIMMY CLEM / RELEASE DATE: AUGUST 24TH