The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Town That Dreaded Sundown

With TV shows like Law and Order, CSI, and their countless spinoffs and knock-offs, it seems impossible for a criminal to get away with anything. Of course, these shows are in a more modern age with all sorts of technology available to law enforcement officials and plenty of forensic evidence. It wasn't always that way though, police having to go through mind-numbing minutiae to get the crook, like the semi-true story presented in 1976's The Town That Dreaded Sundown.

It's early 1946 in the city of Texarkana along the border between Texas and Arkansas. The people and the town are recovering from recently-ended WWII, life seemingly going back to normal. But one February night, a young man and woman are brutally attacked by a hooded stranger, both surviving the vicious assault. Local police, including Deputy Sheriff Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine), investigate but find nothing as to the attacker's identity. Three weeks later another attack occurs, but now the victims are murdered, and three weeks later the same thing happens. A respected Texas Ranger, Capt. J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson), is called in and with Ramsey's help and the whole police department try to catch the killer, dubbed The Phantom. Can they catch him before he kills anymore?

Based on the true story of the Texarkana Killer -- the Phantom Killer -- this B-movie is an oddity among police movies. It has the feel of a docu-drama, narration providing much of the background as the Phantom appears and starts to knock off victims. Instead of a stylish production of an investigation of a murder mystery, we are more so the fly on the wall watching it develop. Even with a small budget, the period quality is there of a mid-sized 1940s town completely taken aback by the stunning appearance of a serial killer in their midst. The story sticks pretty close to the truth of the facts of the case so points have to be awarded for not embellishing those facts. Police procedurals never go out of style -- in film or on television -- and even though this is far from a classic, any fans of cop shows/movies should get some enjoyment out of it.

With a cast of relative unknowns and actual Texarkana residents, 'Sundown' relies on two veterans to carry the load, Ben Johnson and Andrew Prine. One of my favorite actors, Johnson's role is similar to the one he played three years earlier in 1973's Dillinger as Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent tasked with bringing infamous bank robber John Dillinger to justice. He growls, looks tough, smokes his cigars and worries that they'll never catch the killer. Nothing flashy and far from his best performance, but without Johnson, the movie just limps to the finish. Prine too isn't doing anything new or unique, the local cop working with the out-of-towner to help protect his town. In their few scenes together, Johnson and Prine do have a good chemistry, easy-going in a way, two experienced law enforcement officials working with little in the way of leads or evidence.

The appearance of the Phantom is interesting because as a movie it isn't quite a crime story but it also isn't a horror movie. It's surprising, especially considering the hood worn by the Phantom clearly influenced horror movies in the 1980s. More surprising? The "attack" scenes are unintentionally funny. Yes, his sudden appearances of a masked head popping up in a car or house window is startling. Things quickly go downhill from there. The male victims are clueless, basically rolling over and accepting their beating and/or death. The female victims don't run for their lives. They sit still, paralyzed in fear and scream instead. The attacks are telegraphed with a really obvious musical score....slow and sinister and then BAM! ATTACK MUSIC! It is amusing how much this real-life serial killer influenced horror/slasher films. The Phantom favors slutty teenagers at first, and if slasher movies have taught us anything, it's that minorities and slutty girls always go first. Look for Dawn Wells -- Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island -- as one of the victims.

A story focusing on a series of brutal murders done by a serial killer named the Phantom is pretty dramatic stuff, right? I thought so. Director Charles B. Pierce apparently disagrees. He directs and co-stars as Sparkplug, a deputy assigned to serve as Morales' personal driver. But guess what? He's a kooky driver, always screwing up and getting Morales and Ramsey into unwanted trouble. Oh, hilarious! Did Pierce think his dark story needed an injection of humor? Did he think his serial killer story was too dark? No problem, let's liven it up with some really hammy, forced humor! The scenes are painful to watch and completely disrupt what little tone the movie had.

The beauty of Law and Order and CSI is that for the most part, the bad guys are always caught in an hour or less. With this true story, there is no resolution. I'm glad the script didn't call for a fictionalized "capture" of the Phantom, but in getting to that point, 'Sundown' has little energy. The movie even at 86 minutes drifts along in between the attacks, not sure where it wants to do. The ending -- a meeting and chase between the Phantom, Morales and Ramsey -- is exciting, but it's a case of too little, too late. Interesting movie, but not necessarily a good one. You can watch the entire movie HERE at Youtube in a choppy, pan-n-scan cut.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown <---trailer (1976): **/****

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