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May 27, 2013

Movie Review: The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976, Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack)

Review By: Rob Sibley

Scream! Factory is at it once again releasing a little seen gem of the 70's. To my knowledge "The Town That Dreaded Sundown" has never seen a DVD/Blu-ray release before. So toss out your second gen bootlegs boys & girls because this is the definitive release. Also it should be noted as a bonus, Scream Factory has included a second film in this set. Charles B. Pierce's "The Evictors", starring Jessica Harper (Suspiria), Michael Parks (From Dusk Till Dawn) & Vic Morrow (Bronx Warriors). So this review will focus on both films.

"The Town That Dreaded Sundown" is a highly effective and taut  docudrama. Based on true events, the film takes place in 1946 Texarkana. Everything is peaceful enough, until the quiet little town is shocked to it's core when a couple is viciously attacked. This couple had their little make out session interrupted by a large fellow with a sack over his head. Who rips out some of the cars electrical wires out and then drags the boyfriend out of the passenger side window. As he attacks the young women we cut to the following morning. Deputy Norman Ramsey (Andrew Pine) is driving along a stretch a road and finds the young women, bloody, beaten and unconscious on the side of the road. The police aren't able to obtain any relevant information from the shocked couple. They put out a warning to all the towns folk but that doesn't stop another young couple from heading out to a deserted stretch of road for a bit of romance. At this time Ramsey is driving by and hears gunshots only to find the boyfriend dead and the girlfriend tied to a tree with a bullet lodged in her and bite marks on her back.

It's during this that the deputy nearly catches the Phantom killer but he's a little to late and the Phantom killer remains at large. Enter Texas Ranger Captain J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson, Terror Train) who is called in to track the killer down. J.D. Teams up with Deputy Ramsey as they try to hunt the killer down. They have no luck though as the killer manages to evade them at every turn.

Things get worse when the Phantom killer sets his sights on another couple late one night. Ending with a highly disturbing bit of the Phantom attaching a knife to the end of a trumpet and repeatedly stabbing a young women in the back. The scene isn't gory but the sound effects and the killers heaving breathing are very troubling. Even worse is when the Phantom targets a husband and wife. The wife is actually played by Dawn Wells of Gilligan's Island fame. The husband is relaxing in his home as the Phantom appears outside the window, he fires off two shots into the back of the husbands noggin. Then he proceeds to break in through the front door. He shoots the wife a few times, but she manages to crawl to a neighbors house as the Phantom observes the dead husband.

To me “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” is a lost classic. It's a film that will appeal to true crime buffs and slasher film fans. It's a proto-slasher docudrama that packs one hell of a punch! Performances are strong all around with the great Ben Johnson stealing all of his scenes. Another thing that makes this picture all the more effective & chilling is that they never did find the killer. To me TTTDS truly shows off what a talented director Charles B. Pierce was.

I never thought he got the credit he deserved, this film along with some of his other films such as Legend of Boggy Creek, The Evictors and Sacred Ground show off his talent. Sadly I think his career was overshadowed by the infamous bomb that was "Boggy Creek II: And the Legend Continues" which garnered a lot of attention when MST3K riffed on it. But after watching "Town" any memories of  the unintentional hilarity of  Boggy Creek II will be washed away.

Now onto the second film in the set, which is included on the DVD portion of the combo pack. “The Evictors”, which is such an interesting film first and foremost due to the cast. How many films do you get to see Michael Parks playing an average Joe who's not a sheriff of some sort? It's also a delight to see the lovely Jessica Harper (post Suspiria fame) as Park's wife.

The film starts off literally with a bang in 1928 Louisiana. As the sheriff as his deputies along with a man from the bank are on their way to force a family out of their house. Well the family isn't so keen on being evicted, not even by the law. So they load up some shotguns and rifles and open fire on the cops. What ensues in a rather epic little gun battle as this quiet little Southern home takes about as many bullets as the precinct in Assault on Precinct 13 did. We flip a head to 1942 as Mr. & Mrs. Watkins (Parks & Harper) are moving into said house. It's not long before Mrs. Watkin's realizes their not wanted around due to the cold shoulder greeting from the townsfolk and a threatening piece of mail to leave town.

She slowly begins to learn about the houses rather tragic history with a murder of a couple taking place in 1934 and yet another couple murdered in 1939. Someone certainly doesn't dig on people living it up in this house! All these stories are something that their real estate agent Jake Rudd (Vic Morrow) doesn't inform them about.

It's not long before Mrs. Watkin's is attacked in her own home and you know what's refreshing? The second she realizes someone's in the house what does she do? She high tails it directly out of the house and runs all the way to her neighbors house. Refreshing that Harper's character isn't your typical “I heard a noise, let's explore it!” type of cliché character. Harper also has that timeless beauty which so suits her character's period piece look. Michael Parks does a fine job as the hero of the piece and Morrow relishes playing his sleazy character. But it's Jessica Harper who does most of the emotional heavy lifting and carries the picture along very nicely.

I'm actually really surprised that this flick isn't as famous as other thrillers of it's time. It's got terrific performances, the southern Gothic atmosphere is laid on thick and you could cut the tension in the air with a knife. It's an all around solid 1970's horror/thriller that's a gem for sure. Also in my not so humble opinion I actually feel this is a better film then The Town That Dreaded Sundown.

These two fine films are brought to you on a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack courtesy of the great folks at Scream! Factory. Now let's take a look at the films transfers and extras.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown is presented in it's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The 1080p AVC encoded transfer is truly a triumph. Having seen the film many times on a shoddy VHS it's so nice to actually see the film as it was intended to be seen. It's almost like watching a completely different film entirely. The day sequences has a lovely warm look to them, the black levels during the night scenes are strong. Detail & contrast are all spot on, you do get some occasional scratches but it's nothing distracting.

The Evictors on DVD looks surprisingly crisp and clear even in standard edition. No quibbles with this very solid transfer.

For the extra's were start off with a solid commentary track featuring Justin Beahum & historian Jim Presley. Jim to be precise is a historian on the real life Texarkana murders. It's an interesting track with a majority of discussion consisting of information on the murders and how the film stays true and at time departs from the real life happens. It's definitely a track worth listening to for fans of the film.

Next up are four interviews, starting off with “Small Town Lawman: An Interview with Actor Andrew Prine”. Prine is a lively fellow and it's a very entertaining interview. He's got a passion for a craft and discusses his friendship with Pierce.

"Survivor Stories: An Interview with Actress Dawn Wells"- Well's still looks lovely for her age, she talks fondly about working with Pierce on Town & their previous collaboration on “Winterhawk”. She talks in details about dealing with a deadly pitbull & acting out her infamous attack sequence from the film.

Eye of the Beholder: An Interview with Director of Photography James Roberson” is a well-rounded 12 minute chat with the film's D.P. He tells some great story's about working with Ben Johnson and shooting a film with a budget under 400K.

You also get the films theatrical trailer, a poster and stills gallery and an essay about the film.

Well Scream! Factory truly outdid themselves with this release. You two get two solid films for the price of one. The disks are loaded with fantastic bonus material and solid transfers. A MUST BUY for any horror fan.


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