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The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976) - Blu-ray Review

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The Town that Dreaded Sudown - Blu-ray Review

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3 stars

“What you are about to see - where it happened and how it happened - is true.  Only the names have been changed” is the promise of The Town that Dreaded Sundown, Arkansas-native filmmaker Charles B. Pierce’s cult drive-in hit from 1976, and while the film delivers on the horror, the film can’t quite get past its faux-documentary styling to convince anyone that it’s real.  That being said, this is a damn strong attempt at reality – from the pacing to the natural acting – and it all comes together nicely to produce chilling verisimilitude based around a small town in the 1970s.

Loosely based on the true story of a hooded killer who murdered five people between February and May 1946, the film is bracketed by Unsolved Mysteries-like narration from Vern Stierman.  The murderer wanders the back roads and lonely streets of Texarkana, a small town bordering Arkansas and Texas.  The murder spree became known as the "Texarkana Moonlight Murders" and ultimately would claim five lives and injure many others. The only description of the killer ever obtained was of a hooded man. To this day no one has been convicted and these murders remain unsolved.

The film stars Ben Johnson as the famous Texas Ranger sworn to track the maniac down, Andrew Prine (The Miracle Worker) as a local deputy and Dawn Wells (from television’s Gilligan’s Island) as one of the victims. A lot of local amateur Texarkana “talents” are cast in supporting roles and they certainly add to the stark realism of the picture.  The acting from most might be a tad on the weak side but, thankfully, we have the stellar Johnson and underrated Prine to keep us dialed in.

Of course, there are a lot of small town embellishments to the true story but Earl E. Smith’s screenplay doesn’t spoil the natural tension with ludicrous add-ons…except for one: the character named Patrolman A.C. Benson played by the director himself.  Dubbed “Sparkplug” by his co-workers for his dimwitted antics, the character – driving cars into ponds, losing keys, yelling at citizens, dressing in drag – is in the film for humor only.  It absolutely does not work.  The film is far more interesting without these distractions and, even for the drive-in, this is a waste of momentum.  We go from these moments of “humor” to the grave narration and it’s completely jarring, effectively ruining the mood of the picture.  This is self-serving ridiculousness that simply brings the picture down.

This isn’t exactly a tight picture.  There are some dated pacing issues audiences have to forgive as the terrified town is held at bay by this mysterious killer.  The actual kills; however, are above average and not just simple “slasher” jabs.  Some are quite detailed and elaborate and – as The Town that Dreaded Sundown is based on real events – just plain bizarre (a trombone, really?) and unsettling.  This is where the atmosphere kicks in.  This is not your standard slasher formula.  It’s effectively disturbing.

In rural America, no one can hear you scream.

{2jtab: Film Details}

The Town that Dreaded Sudown - Blu-ray ReviewMPAA Rating: R.
Runtime:
86 mins.
Director
: Charles B. Pierce
Writer
: Earl E. Smith
Cast: Ben Johnson; Andrew Prine; Dawn Wells; Jimmy Clem
Genre: Horror
Tagline:
In 1946 this man killed five people... Today he still lurks the streets of Texarkana, Ark.
Memorable Movie Quote: "Texarkana looked normal during the daylight hours. But everyone dreaded sundown"
Distributor:
Shout! Factory
Official Site:

Release Date:
December 24, 1976
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: May 21, 2013

Synopsis: A Texas Ranger hunts for a hooded serial killer terrorizing the residents of a small town, set in 1946 Arkansas. Loosely based on a true story.

{2jtab: Blu-ray Review}

The Town that Dreaded Sudown - Blu-ray Review

Component Grades
Movie

Blu-ray Disc
3 stars

5 Stars



Blu-ray Experience
4 stars

Blu-ray

Blu-ray Details:

Available on Blu-ray - May 21, 2013
Screen Formats: 2.40:1
Subtitles
: English SDH
Audio:
English: DTS-HD Master Audio Mono (48kHz, 24-bit)
Discs:
25GB Blu-ray Disc; Two-disc set (1 BD, 1 DVD); DVD copy
Region Encoding: Locked to region A

The Blu-ray preserves the film's native 2.35:1 aspect ratio for this 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer.  The Town That Dreaded Sundown looks pretty good for a thirty-seven-year-old low-budget film. There’s a substantial bump in detail and clarity that most will notice when compared to previous releases. The film often takes on the warm appearance of its Texarkana setting, and colors are nicely saturated.  Black levels are decent, though there's a fair bit of crush thanks to the mid-level 35 mm stock.  Wide shots are clear and crisp, and close-ups often provide good facial detail.  A lossless 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mono mix, which is true to the original presentation, is included.

Supplements:

Commentary:

  • Historian Jim Presley provides an interesting commentary about his work on the real case and discusses the differences between reality and the film.  Justin Beahm moderates and also provides details about the real investigation.  This is an absolute must.

Special Features:

Shout Factory does it again, providing lots of additional material to make fans happy.  Included are new interviews with Andrew Pine, Dawn Wells, and the Director of Photography James Roberson.  Also included is a bonus DVD-only second feature, “The Evictors” (1979), another ’40s period piece about a young couple (Michael Parks and Jessica Harper) who move into an eerie house with a violent history in a small Louisiana town, and find themselves tormented in terrifying ways by the previous owners. Vic Morrow is effectively sinister as the mysterious realtor who sells them the place.  Rounding out the collection are still galleries, a written essay, and the film’s original trailer.

  • The Evictors (92 min)
  • Small Town Lawman: Interview with Andrew Prine (10 min)
  • Survivor Stories: Interview with Dawn Wells (5 min)
  • Eye of the Beholder: Interview with Director of Photography James Roberson (13 min)
  • Theatrical Trailer (2 min)
  • Poster & Still Gallery (3 min)
  • The Phantom of Texarkana essay

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