Thursday, October 02, 2008

31 DAYS OF FRIGHT: Childhood Trauma and Potato Sack Headgear

A week or two ago I discovered, a horror blog with a unique perspective – contributors weigh in on the stuff that scared the crap out of them when they were kids. It's fascinating to read what scared or freaked people out and it really makes you wonder why we gravitate towards the genre when it clearly was the stuff of nightmares during our formative years.

I'm no different. My mother still tells the story about how I was freaked out by my brothers watching THE NUTTY PROFESSOR and I ran from the house, but I think that has more to do with the fact that Jerry Lewis is scary, no matter how old I get!

Frankly, the most terrifying film from my childhood was something I didn't see until more than a dozen years after its release.

In 1977 American International released THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, a fact-based drama about a hooded killer stalking lover's lane in Texarcana, Arkansas. Much to my dismay, the flick's ad campaign hammered home the fact that the killer was never caught and the posters and ads depicting a gun-toting madman prowling the streets wearing a potato sack over his head caused more than a few restless nights.

While time lessened a bit of the film's impact – and the fact that a post-World War II killer was probably not as spry in the early 1990s when I finally worked up the guts to rent the flick – SUNDOWN remains a vital bridge between the thriller-oriented flicks of the early 70s and the slasher genre that would explode a few years later with the success of HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13TH. (Jason even sports eerily similar potato sack headgear in FRIDAY THE 13: PART 2.)

The film takes place eight months after the end of WWII and details the events surrounding the unsolved case. After two attacks, the first of which is rendered in surprisingly vicious fashion by director Charles B. Pierce (who also helmed the BOGGY CREEK films), local police turn to the most famous Ranger in Texas history, J.D. "The Lone Wolf" Morales (played by legendary character actor Ben Johnson). While Morales pledges to either capture or kill "The Phantom" (as the local media dubs him), even he admits that the odds are stacked against the cops nabbing the sadistic killer.

More attacks follow, including the bizarre use of a trombone as a murder weapon and an assault on Mary Anne from GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (Dawn Wells), and then the killer disappears into the woods, never to be brought to justice.

Despite the fact that I knew the killer had never been caught (probably the most troubling aspect of the film's campaign all those years ago), I remember feeling let down by the non-ending. As a consumer of a dramatic medium, we almost demand a satisfactory conclusion to a story, but SUNDOWN avoids any tacked on wrap-up designed to make 10-year-olds sleep more soundly. The film never deviates from the fact-based nature of the tale. Narration informs us that the authorities involved with the case were haunted by it till their deaths and the script by Earl E. Smith never resorts to taking guesses at the killer's identity or playing analyst beyond the belief that The Phantom was "a sadist motivated by a strong sexual desire."

By keeping the film focused on the law enforcement officials and their quest to find The Phantom, SUNDOWN enhances the mystery and power of this killer. There are no scenes of him retreating to his lair to read porn or worship at a shrine devoted to his mother. No attempts at pretending to know more than was known about him three decades before the film was made.

The slasher genre would flip this idea on its head in the years to come, with law enforcement authorities largely filling the role as more bodies for Jason, Michael, Freddy and their ilk to slice and dice as they stalked more horny teens.

Supported by a solid, no nonsense script and an able cast (which also features trash film star Andrew Prine as one of the deputies), THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is a underappreciated slice of pre-slasher horror/thriller cinema.

Sadly, SUNDOWN is not available on legit DVD and the VHS tapes that I avoided like the plague now go for $20+ on the collector's market.

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