The Town That Dreaded Sundown Blu-ray Review
Written by ZigZag
Blu-ray released by Scream Factory
Directed by Charles B. Pierce
Written by Earl E. Smith
1976, Region A, 86 minutes, Rated R
Blu-ray released on May 21st, 2013
Ben Foster as Capt. J.D. Morales
Andrew Prine as Deputy Ramsey
Dawn Wells as Helen Reed
Charles Pierce as Sparkplug
In 1946, the town of Texarkana, Arkansas, was terrorized by an unknown assailant given the moniker “The Phantom Killer”. It started one night when a young couple was parked on Lover’s Lane and a man wearing a hood pulled them from their car and beat them mercilessly with a pipe. The woman was tied to a tree and repeatedly bitten. The couple survived and she was only able to provide a vague description of the attacker. Police were baffled and came up with very little in the way of a resolution. Twenty-one days later, the man struck again, this time killing a young couple and the town was put under strict curfew.
Additional members of law enforcement were brought in to assist in catching the man responsible and it was soon established that the killer was following a pattern where attacks occurred every three weeks. The Phantom Killer continued to murder residents of the community despite the best efforts of the police. He has never been caught and the crimes remain unsolved to this day. The villain is quite striking with the iconic image of the plain hood with the only holes being the ones cut for the eyes, his heavy breathing shifting the contours of the disguise. Similar figures would emerge in future cinematic offerings, most notably Friday the 13th Part 2, but this variation is particularly terrifying.
Charles Pierce (The Legend of Boggy Creek) presents his film as a docudrama, based on true events. There is a claim at the beginning that only the names have been changed to protect the innocent, but a quick review of the actual case reveals a lot of dramatic license taken for the movie. The Town That Dreaded Sundown carries the very bizarre tone of a crime procedural mixed with a healthy dose of comic relief. What plays as an extended episode of Dragnet (complete with a dubious narration), is suddenly thrust into an episode of The Andy Griffith Show, with director Pierce playing the role of the bumbling deputy “Sparkplug”.
The cast is surprisingly solid, led by Ben Foster (Terror Train) as Texas Ranger J.D. Morales and Andrew Prine (Simon, King of the Witches) as Deputy Ramsey, the only cop in town with skills. Foster hits every mark as the seasoned law man with the weathered features and richly accented voice. Matching him every step of the way, Prine really shines as the frustrated lawman unable to protect his community. It is an odd decision for Pierce to invite so much comedy into the role of “Sparkplug”, since every other aspect of the picture treats the subject matter with respect. His shenanigans are a bit off-putting and more in line with a Smokey and the Bandit caricature.
James Roberson’s cinematography elevates the material with an unimposing directness that is neither too flashy nor overly stylized, which keeps the material grounded in reality. The film shares more than a passing resemblance to the equally disturbing Helter Skelter, released the same year. The Town That Dreaded Sundown is one of those movies that fell between the cracks in the home video market. It received a dreadful full-frame transfer on VHS, resulting in a vertically squeezed image that was not only ugly to the eye but also eliminated any sense of artistic composition. In 2012, a widescreen print aired on cable television and now with this release on both DVD and Blu-ray, audiences can once again see the film as it was intended…and it took only 37 years to achieve this goal.
Video and Audio:
The Town That Dreaded Sundown makes its long-overdue domestic debut thanks to the always-reliable folks at Shout! Factory. The film receives a nice presentation in the original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio with strong colors and natural flesh tones. Noticeable print damage mars the presentation, but this is the best the film is likely going to look.
The film receives only a single 2.0 DTS-HD Master audio track that preserves the original mix. Dialogue remains clear and free of distortion while music appears a bit scratchy at times; this is likely the result of the condition of the original elements. English subtitles are thoughtfully provided.
Crime historian Jim Presley provides an informative and fast-moving audio commentary track detailing the elements of the actual case. Justin Beahm moderates the track and points out where the film takes liberties.
Small Town Lawman: Interview with Andrew Prine (10 minutes) is a fun segment with the iconic actor sharing anecdotes from the production. Prine is a charismatic storyteller and I can only imagine how awesome it would be to include him on the commentary track, but I gladly welcome this interview.
Survivor Stories: Interview with Dawn Wells (5 minutes) finds the actress relating the time she worked with Charles Pierce and her thoughts on her character, Helen Reed in the film.
Eye of the Beholder: Interview with Director of Photography James Roberson (13 minutes) is the most informative segment, in which he discusses the limitations of the production and how the crew staged the murder scenes.
Next up are a collection of marketing materials including a gallery of posters and stills and the original trailer.
The Phantom of Texarkana is Brian Albright’s essay written about the Phantom Killer case, presented as on-screen text. This piece is highly informative and definitely worth a read.
A DVD copy of the film is also included in the package. This disc contains only one supplement, Charles Pierce’s The Evictors (92 minutes).This bonus movie is presented in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and stars Vic Morrow (The Last Shark), Jessica Harper (Suspiria) and Michael Parks (Kill Bill).