Monday, February 7, 2011

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

by Brian S. "The Moonpie Murderer" Roe

Charles B. Pierce was an ambitious man. Not content to merely help in the making of films as a set director, Pierce also wanted to produce and direct. And although his films were sometimes successful, they also suffered from many of the constant curses of local independent films: bad acting, lack of direction, and random voice-overs. All of these curses are in evidence in Pierce’s 1977 drive-in background noise The Town That Dreaded Sundown.

The movie is based on several real killings and attacks that occurred in Texarkana in 1946. The attacker had all of the gimmicks that would become standard tropes for slasher-movie killers: he was never caught, he wore a mask, and he had cool names stuck to him. The Phantom Killer, The Texarkana Phantom (or simply The Phantom), The Phantom Slayer and The Moonlight Murderer. I mean, come on. Who wouldn’t want to be The Moonlight Murderer? The actual attacks were cruel and brutal with a blatant sexual element that implied a person incapable of getting off and who wanted to hurt people as a form of release.

So what a great idea for a light-hearted cop comedy! There’s a severely flawed concept behind TTTDS that everytime the audience sees something nasty happen, give them a little Keystone Kops and they’ll feel better. And the worst offender as an actor is the ambitious man himself, Charles B. Pierce.

The movie begins well enough with several slice-of-life set-up scenes describing Texarkana immediately after World War II. These play almost like documentary footage or home movies from a time when people still threw actual rice at weddings (Fuck the birds). Texarkana is described as a decent town where a lot of returning soldiers were going to college on the GI Bill, people were wanting spiffy new cars, and lots of homes were being built. All in all, a pretty snug little burg.

Then a really cute 1940s-style girl and her Crypt Keeper-looking boyfriend are attacked in a hidden lovers' rendezvous. The actual attack in this scene is pretty blunt and straight forward. The killer is totally in control of things, and his glaring eyes from beneath his gunny-sack mask are intimidating and iconic. The Phantom’s mask becomes another character in this movie, swelling like an attacking fish as the killer breathes out and contracting to form the shape of his skull as he breathes in.

Two brief scenes stand out during this sequence. After the boyfriend has been dispatched, the killer crawls into the car with the still screaming girl. Then the car begins to rock. The implication that something foul is happening here is pretty awful. There’s something vulgar about the rocking of the car as the girl’s screams fade. And this is followed up by some very unkind images of the beaten and mud-spattered girl crawling along the side of road begging for help from passing motorists.

"But what about the comedy, Roe?! I needs me some chuckles if I’m going to get through this whole thing."

Which leads me to fucking Sparkplug. Fuck you, Sparkplug. Director/producer Pierce loves putting himself in his movies. He thinks he’s an action hero, college professor, policeman, and comedy fucking genius. In TTTDS, he plays Patrolman A.C. Benson, a.k.a. Sparkplug, a pissy little good-for-nothing dickhead who can’t drive and threatens to shoot some old broad’s dog when he comes over to kick the shit out of her son. Sparkplug has two facial expressions both apparently designed to make me want to destroy him. One is angry and slightly unhinged. The other is disbelieving and slightly unhinged. Several times in the movie, he fucks up some simple task and then gives this odd glare to whoever rails on him about it. The guy just seems unpleasant, stupid, and violent. Great choice for a cop, Texarkana! Actually my main candidate for who the killer was is Sparkplug. Except he’d fuck that up too.

Wait a minute, back to the killing and assaulting and such. Another couple goes out and gets all attacked while Deputy Norman Ramsey tries to find them on a lonely, rain-deluged road. Again this sequence plays out well, even though it is shot day-for-night and has some of the most awkward and unnecessary Foley work in any movie. While Ramsey is trying to cross a pond in pursuit of the killer, his footsteps in the water are matched with sounds that are obviously someone splashing in a tub. And then just to reinforce that this is a pond, a very out-of-place bullfrog croaks loudly. I’m surprised that this wasn’t followed up by the sound of a cartoon frog tongue-zapping a fly out of the air.

The deputy is played by Andrew Prine (one of two actual actors in this film) with a reserve and decency that makes the character likeable and trustworthy. Upon witnessing the aftermath of the first attack, Deputy Ramsey seems truly shaken and pissed off, not in a Walking Tall way, but in the way that actual cops must feel sometimes. There was nothing he could do about the first attack but during this second assault, he might have a chance to stop the killer. But the rain slows his running and he finally gets close enough to the suspect to see him drive away. Justice will not be served on this sad, tragic day.

Oh, wait! More comedy, says you? So Sparkplug dresses up like a woman and his balloon tits are different sizes and Jimmy Clem (yes, THE Jimmy Clem) tries to feel him up during a sting operation. And then one totally pops! High-larious!

Okay, I’m tired of this bullshit back-and-forth routine, so I’ll just talk about Ben Johnson and be done with it. Ben Johnson is one of those dudes who was born in the real American West and carries it in his voice like iron thunder. The guy just walks into the movie and it starts to swirl around him. Even the simple act of buying cigars just seems powerful somehow. If you haven’t seen The Wild Bunch (which includes so many other powerfully grizzled fucking actors that it should have a monument for it made from hand-carved oak and cast iron), check it out. Or Cherry 2000 is good too. So yeah, Ben Johnson, the other real actor in this movie.

What else? Jimmy Clem comes off really bear-gay here. There’s a really sad but stupid killing with a trombone. The guy who wrote the movie tries to act. All the black people in the movie are either servants or are getting called “darkie”. Oh and Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island is in it (How I pine for Ginger).

The Town That Dreaded Sundown shares a lot of similarities with the David Fincher film Zodiac. Except that Zodiac had a clear purpose and story to tell. Pierce had the basic tools to make a film that, for its time, could have been somewhat as powerful as Zodiac. There are glimpses here that show something pretty creative at work. But you can’t make two kinds of film simultaneously and expect them to work. Especially the oil-and-water mix of brutal assault and murder and goofy cop humor. Perhaps Pierce was just trying to add some treacle to the brimstone. Instead he made something oddly indigestible and empty.

Charles B. Pierce: A Brief Appreciation

For all the foulness that I sling at Charles Pierce, I actually respect him greatly. I respect anyone who can get a single film made, let alone a dozen. When I first started writing this piece, I found out that Charles Pierce had died. Suddenly I didn’t feel like mocking him anymore. The guy had done his time on Earth, had made some stuff, given me some entertainment (even if this was indirectly his doing sometimes), and often worked locally, giving his friends and neighbors parts in the great Hollywood machine that they never would have been a part of otherwise. Besides he was born in Indiana, so I feel for him.

Although Pierce worked primarily as a Hollywood set decorator, he still pushed himself to produce and direct his own films locally. With the success of the original Boggy Creek, he helped to create an independent film style that used the grit and dirt of real life to heighten the experience of certain types of films. The horror movie genre would look very different today without the involvement of Charles Pierce.

Seeing many of the same actors in The Town That Dreaded Sundown that were in Boggy Creek 2 made me realize that Pierce, much like the often but unfairly maligned Ed Wood, had built a group of people around him that liked him enough to be in his movies. Try getting a group of your friends to make a movie in summer in Arkansas and you’ll see what I mean. Dedication to filmmaking is laudable even if the end results are uneven or could have been improved by a little more care, craft, or money. Pierce said, “Damn it! I want to make movies in Arkansas.”

And he did.