Directed by Charles B. Pierce [Other horror films: The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972), The Evictors (1979), The Barbaric Beast of Boggy Creek, Part II (1984)]
My opinion on this crime/horror hybrid hasn’t much changed since I last saw it. It’s a great little 70’s flick based off a real-life series of murders, and the dry documentary-style the movie partakes in (complete with the great narration of Vern Stierman) really does the story justice.
I think what I enjoy most about this is how focused it is on the procedure the police officers go through in order to capture the killer. Of course, we see many of the kills the police aren’t privy to at the time, but for most of the movie, we’re following Ben Johnson’s Captain J.D. Morales. The spotlight on the attempted detective work (truth be told, evidence was pretty much non-existent) was also helped out by the aforementioned documentary-style of the film. It really felt at times like I was watching an episode of Dragnet (which certainly isn’t meant in a negative way).
I suspect that my main complaint with the film is somewhat similar to many others’ views, and that’s that The Town That Dreaded Sundown is, at times, tonally inconsistent. Charles B. Pierce (the director of the film, as a matter of fact) played a character Patrolman Benson, or Sparkplug, who was almost entirely utilized as comic relief. In a 70’s documentary about savage crimes that have shrouded a community in fear, I thought that Pierce’s character was just too inconsistent. He just felt so out of place. Luckily, that’s one of the few flaws, as both Ben Johnson and Andrew Prine did quite well.
While this next comment isn’t necessarily a fair criticism, I have to say the kills, for a movie often considered a proto-slasher, were somewhat lacking. Much of it was death by gunshot, and the only really unique kill was with the trombone. Now, given this is based off true events, I understand how those comments could come across as tasteless, but there you go. The design of the killer, though, with the awesome hood, certainly stood out as a positive.
Many people have called this film somewhat dry, but I think that’s somewhat the point. The killer of the original crimes in the 1940’s was never caught (many people believe it to have been suspect Youell Swinney, but that’s certainly nowhere near proven or conclusive), which means that the movie doesn’t answer all the questions someone may want. It does, however, lead to the ending, which was just great.
Personally, as a fan of 70’s horror films and their often drier auras, I really like this one. I did when I first saw it, and that’s not changed. I think it’s a rather interesting movie, and while the tone is admittedly inconsistent at times, I definitely think this is a fine film, and probably made for a great drive-in experience.