Saturday 17 May 2014

The Town That Dreaded Sundown [1976]

THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is an American true crime thriller that was directed by Charles B. Pierce and originally released by American International Pictures (AIP) in December 1976.  It stars Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine and not only Pierce himself but also his then wife Cindy Butler.  The citizens of Texarkana, Arkansas are being terrorised by a masked killer who always appears to be one step ahead of the law so the local Sheriff's Department calls in a renowned detective with the Texas Rangers to take charge of the investigation.

Charles B. Pierce was a director of independent backwoods movies which most often found a home on the grindhouse / drive-in circuit.  As is the case with this film, his pictures were usually set in the southern United States, particularly Arkansas where Pierce grew up.  Knowing the region so well allowed him to create believable settings populated with three-dimensional characters; indeed in some of his films, especially the early ones, parts were played not by actors but by local people.  It's often the case that you have to stray quite some distance from the mainstream to find genuinely regional films like Pierce's.  Contrast this film, with its colourful but credible characters, with something like Alan Parker's MISSISSIPPI BURNING [1988] which is peopled by stereotypical hayseeds and rednecks.

A more sophisticated view of the South than we are used to: note the characters are drinking wine rather than beer.  The still is not without social comment though: note the black waiter.

Pierce wasn't the only one by any means.  I suppose the prime example is Woody Allen, an independent film-maker, albeit on a much larger scale, who limits the majority of his films not to a region but to one city. As my friend JBD pointed out to me the other day, the likes of S. F. Brownrigg and Earl Owensby were responsible for independent regional genre films which were set in Texas and North Carolina respectively.

It's not just the regional nature of Pierce's film that makes it stands out; by itself that wouldn't necessarily make a film.  What Pierce also offers is technique: a genuine mastery of the widescreen frame and an impressive control of colour.  Pierce's first eight features were all shot in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio (which must be some kind of record for a low-budget independent genre director) and clearly by the time he made this, his fifth feature, he'd really got the hang of it.

I've written before about the pros and cons of widescreen photography but in a nutshell one might say that it's great for epics but at the cost of intimacy.  In my opinion Pierce manages that problem very well because in certain moments his film has to be intimate; the Phantom Killer preys initially upon courting couples parked up in lovers lanes so the viewer must be able to imagine he / she is in the car with them.

John Carpenter achieves the same effect in HALLOWEEN [1978], utilising the wide frame to find places for Michael Myers to hide in but also creating a feeling of claustrophobia as Jamie Lee Curtis, by contrast, can't find anywhere to hide.

The wide open spaces of Haddonfield in John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN [1979]

and the claustrophobic interiors in the same film.

t has been pointed out that Stanley Kubrick used a technique knows as 'one point perspective' whereby the viewer's eye is drawn to a single central vanishing point by a meticulous mise en scene involving unobtrusive symmetry.

One point perspective in Kubrick's FULL METAL JACKET [1987]

Two point perspective in THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN
In the above still Pierce uses two point perspective, using the lines created on the left by the pavement and the hotel awning, and on the right by the building's two perpendicular sides to draw the viewer's eye away from the centre of the screen thereby reinforcing the idea of space already created by the use of widescreen. Another example is shown in the still below.

Pierce's use of colour is another striking element of this film.  Like the once great Dario Argento, Pierce uses colour very deliberately and not at all gratuitously so that you really notice when it's there.  Red plays a very important part and Pierce uses it to both enhance the overall look of a frame and to pick out details within the frame.  Consider these examples.

In terms of its narrative and structure Pierce's film was very much a forerunner of David Fincher's ZODIAC [2007].  Although the plot story centres around the brutal murders of young couples, this is a world away from the OTT sensational slasher flicks like FRIDAY THE 13TH [1979] or the stylised sadism of Argento. The murder scenes are harrowing, brutal and actually rather upsetting just as they are in ZODIAC.  In between the murders we follow the progress of the police investigation and while I wouldn't call it a procedural, such as Michael Mann's MANHUNTER [1986] Pierce does show us some of the nuts and bolts of police work.

Charles B. Pierce as the hapless Patrolman Benson
The only false note in THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is the broad comedy provided by the bumbling Patrolman Benson, played by Pierce himself.  Such moments as Benson forgetting the keys to his car, or driving his car into a lake, or dressing up in drag as part of a trap to lure the killer, are jarring in an otherwise sober movie.  Perhaps Pierce felt that his film would be too downbeat without moments of levity, and he may have been right, but I think he went too far in that direction.

Ben Johnson as Captain J.D. Morales
There are really only two cast members with roles prominent enough to mention here: Ben Johnson and Andrew Prine.  Ben Johnson, like Richard Farnsworth who I wrote about in my review of RESURRECTION recently, started out in movies as a stunt rider which eventually got him speaking parts in Westerns.  Initially he was a member of John Ford's stock company and latterly became associated with Sam Peckinpah.  His finest hour, at least in the eyes of the Academy was in Peter Bogdanovich's wonderful THE LAST PICTURE SHOW [1971] for which Johnson won the Best Supporting Actor award.  Johnson could play mean or avuncular but he was always authoritative and his creased face spoke of a man who had witnessed much.  He died in 1996.

Andrew Prine as Deputy Norman Ramsey

Andrew Prine is a more a genre specialist and made plenty of delirious movies and as such is aces by me. I've written about him before (see my review of THE EVIL here) so I'll limit myself to saying he's very good in this film and makes a good hero.  He was good looking and talented enough to have become a big star but it never really happened for him and he ended up in a lot of TV episodes in the 70s, 80s and well into the 90s too.  He's still going strong and has racked up a frankly ludicrous 181 acting credits according to imdb. You can visit his official site here

Charles B. Pierce only made 12 features but was involved in film-making for most of his adult life; he had a side career as a set dresser on low-budget genre films as well as mainstream stuff like Clint Eastwood's THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES [1976].  Obviously Pierce's attention to deal was exceptional and a significant factor in THE TOWN... being so convincing in its post-war setting.  I would urge you to check out any of Pierce's films but would particularly recommend his debut feature THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK [1972] which is a lot more thoughtful and even lyrical than its lurid would suggest, and THE EVICTORS [1979] a brutal but effective horror story.  Pierce died in 2010.

The DP responsible for successfully capturing Pierce's set-ups was James Roberson who shot five films for him before moving into TV work.  He did however direct the 1982 horror feature SUPERSTITION a review of which you will find elsewhere on this site.

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