Despite scoring a major hit on the drive-in circuit with his first movie, the Bigfoot-themed mockumentary The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972), low-budget auteur Charles B. Pierce dabbled in stories about Indians and moonshiners before returning to his comfort zone of Southern-fried horror. Once again flimflamming viewers by claiming that a highly fictionalized story was based on true events, Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown dramatizes the reign of terror that a real-life serial killer inflicted on a small Arkansas town during the 1940s. To give the story momentum, Pierce and his frequent screenwriter, Earl E. Smith, focus on a hard-driving Texas Ranger (Ben Johnson) who tries to capture the murderer. So far, we’re off to a good start—and, indeed, many aspects of The Town That Dreaded Sundown seem promising at first glance. The title is great, the poster is spooky, and the trope of a psycho appearing from darkness wearing a sack over his head while he wields a pitchfork is memorably disturbing. (A long sequence in which the so-called “Phantom Killer” stalks a woman played by Gilligan’s Island star Dawn Wells almost fulfills this gimmick’s promise.) Unfortunately, Pierce’s usual problems with maintaining a consistent tone and sustaining dramatic interest derail the film. Recalling the faux-newsreel style he used for Boggy Creek, Pierce presents most of the movie like a documentary, complete with narration and re-enactments, but he occasionally abandons the style to showcase long stretches of straight narrative. This doesn’t work. Furthermore, a comedy subplot about an inept policeman (played by Pierce) is beyond tiresome, and the murder scenes are so sadistic they feel out of character with the rest of the picture. In other words, enjoy the poster and skip the movie, otherwise you’ll say goodbye to 86 minutes that could have been spent more constructively.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown: LAME