In 1946 this man killed five people… today he still lurks the streets.
So you wait for one The Town that Dreaded Sundown to turn up and two arrive at once, as hot on the coat tails of the latest version comes the original 1976 story of the Moonlight Murders.
So let’s take the original 1976 version first, which is reissued in the UK as a dual format (Blu-ray and DVD) edition on 24 August. Based upon a true story, Its 1946 and the city of Texarkana on the Texas-Arkansas border is getting back to normality after the deprivations of World War Two. A pair of young lovers drive out to the local lover’s lane, where instead of getting to fool around with each other they get savagely beaten by a sack-masked nutjob.. Three weeks later another couple are found in similar circumstances only this time they have both been savagely murdered.
Local police realise they have a serial killer on the loose and Texas Ranger JD Morales (Ben Johnson) is called in to lead the investigation into the grandaddy of Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. If you have never seen anyone murdered with a trombone this is the movie for you!
The movie opens like an episode to the 1950s TV show Dragnet with a spoken narration and this kind of docudrama theme is maintained throughout the 90 minute run time. In many ways this is a typical mid 70s American International Picture with trademark violence, gore, gunfights and car chases, as Sackhead kills and the cops attempt to close in on him. There is some really beautiful photography of the mid west countryside, a nod to Hitchcock as a victim takes flight into a cornfield, while the wardrobe, props and set design all look pretty authentic mid 1940s . There’s even a spot of dismal light relief in the form of the incompetent clumsy cop ‘Sparkplug’ played by director Charles B Pierce.
A highly influential proto body count chiller I give The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976) a 555/666. (It’s one point docked thanks to Sparkplug)
Dual format extras include: trailers for both original and the 2014 versions; feature-length audio commentary; interviews with Andrew Prine (Deputy Norman Ramsey), Dawn Wells (victim) and Director of Photography James Roberson, Limited edition fully illustrated collectors book.
So onto the 2014 version, released on DVD in the UK on 17 August. I opened up the DVD shrink-wrap with some trepidation fearing a brutal torture-porn gorefest, but the new film is a lot more intelligent than that. Fortunately it’s not a remake or a straight sequel to the 1976 flick, but a sequel to the actual events, although having seen the 1976 version helps a lot to put the forthcoming events into context. So in present day Texarkana at Halloween there is a special showing of the original movie at the drive-in. Jami (Addison Timlin) tells her boyfriend Corey (Spencer Treat Heart) that she doesn’t like this kind of movie so they drive off to the make out point where of course a new Sackhead is ready and waiting for them, Corey gets butchered, but Jami gets away and escapes into the drive-in park.
As the murders start again, Sackhead uses Corey’s mobile phone to tip-off Jami that he’s going to kill. Once again The Texas Rangers are called in, but in the hunt for Sackhead only Jami and her new boyfriend city archivist Nick (Travis Trope) get anywhere near sorting through a virtual shoal of red herrings to discover the killer’s identity as Sackhead’s reign of terror continues, replicating the original Moonlight Murders before coming back to get them.
Playing these movies back to back was a very interesting experience and demonstrated just how far genre film making has advanced over the 38 years that separate them. The latest version has a much brisker pace and more imaginative use of lighting and music, and despite being a lot more violently explicit does not overdo the gore at the expense of suspense.
I give The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014) a 666/666
DVD extras: Cast and crew interviews