Killtoberfest 3 – #2: The Town That Dreaded Sundown

In All, Movies by Kyu

“The incredible story you are about to see is true: where it happened, and how it happened.
Only the names have been changed.”

Next up on Killtoberfest 3, the second of three 1970s films. This one is coincidentally also a serial killer movie produced by AIP: 1976’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown.

The town in question is Texarkana, a small city right on the border between east Texas and Arkansas. There, in 1946, while the town’s young men were still returning from the war, a series of murders took place, sending this quiet town into a panic. Thirty years later, this film took that story as its basis. At its best, the movie combines the eeriness of a slasher film with the deadpan realism of a docudrama. But it’s ultimately more valuable as an artifact of cinematic history than as entertainment.

Once again I’ve chosen a 70s film with significant influence on its genre. Sundown is in several extended sequences a proto-slasher, and is said to be the first movie featuring a masked killer. The mask in this case looks like a white bag or pillowcase with eyeholes cut into it; its most important function from an aesthetic perspective is to inflate and deflate with the killer’s heavy, aroused breathing. Its other function is to take an individual and turn him into a concept. The killer could be anyone, and that fact is surely just as unsettling as the thought that anyone could be his next victim. Unspoken is the implication throughout that this 1940s idyll of a small Southern town has produced someone… deviant. The locals react by buying guns, locking their doors, staying home after sunset, and organizing the largest police manhunt in the area’s history.

The film has no true protagonist, following the events and their effect on the town as a whole. There are hints here of something as chillingly collective in both guilt and fearful response as Peter Straub’s classic short story, “A Short Guide to the City”, delivered here in a straightforward, basic, almost amateurish style, as if the town itself got together to memorialize this period in their own history. Documentary-style montages observe ordinary lives. The intermittent narrator often describes something (“Within 24 hours of the killing, every gun store had sold out of weapons”) just before it is shown on screen (a shot of an empty gun shop display case), a redundancy meant to demonstrate how closely the cinematic recreation of events hews to the apparently accurate framing perspective. The most overt dramatization in that perspective centers on two cops, a local deputy who was at the scene of the first two crimes and a nationally famous investigator nicknamed “The Lone Wolf.” These are the weakest portions of the movie, which often try for ill-advised comedy or feature the bulk of the film’s stilted, basic dialogue. One sequence features officers in drag acting as decoys; another has the cops in a slow motion, Dukes of Hazard-esque chase with an unconnected criminal. The overall impression is of ordinary people not equipped to handle an extraordinary situation. Intercut with their investigation are the murder sequences, each of which exhibit the veracity and randomness of real life. Victims make mistakes and survive being shot; the killer improvises and reacts believably to changing situations. The “story” is just as meandering, refusing to cohere into any narrative beyond the progression of time and the advancement of attitude–the town into fear, the police into frustration, the killer into legend.

What makes the film ultimately so fascinating and so important to the history of the genre is the way it discovers the heart of the slasher film almost by accident. Obviously the movie is using this real life series of murders for the sake of entertainment, but the film goes out of its way not to sensationalize or overly dramatize the content. There is a sense of history being depicted, rather than a story being told, and crucially this extends to the way the film only barely characterizes the victims. Most of them barely receive more than a handful of generic lines before they are attacked. It feels as though the movie didn’t want to attribute invented personalities to real people, but the result is that when these blank characters are met by a masked and silent killer, there is no narrative obscuring the base struggle for survival. It’s compelling on a pure, animal level. Over the next 15 years or so, many slasher films not based on or presented as true stories would nonetheless by emulation or instinct simplify their characters to this same point of simple universality. This is the nexus of the slasher movie as trash art, the way they sacrifice traditional cinematic qualities for an emotional impact of the sort delivered by blunt object.

The other way Sundown presages its genre is, again, an element it comes by naturally through the historical connection, one which went on to be an important part of later, fictional slasher films: the thematic cycle of sexual repression, expression, and punishment. Many actual male serial killers are motivated in part by sexual desire to commit sexualized violence; a killer’s pattern is the expression of a specific fetishistic scenario worked and reworked compulsively and criminally on others. What little we learn about the “Phantom Killer’ in this movie fits into this understanding. The killer targets mostly young people, mostly on lover’s lanes; he shoots or bludgeons the men before tying the women to a tree facing away from him in order to then bite her repeatedly on the back, neck, and chest. In a moment of fundamental, anarchical insanity, he takes a male victim’s trombone, ties a knife to the end of it, and stabs the female victim by playing it and extending the slide at her–symbolically, stealing the man’s phallus and making it his own instrument of sexual violence. No one in the film blames the victims for the attacks, but the implied connection between the killer’s sexuality run amok and the victims’ sexuality bringing them to risk and ruin exists throughout. In the movie’s most poignant scene, juniors and seniors attend the Spring Prom, dance, drink punch, are congratulated in a speech, and drive off for lover’s lanes in the early AM dark to screw and be menaced. There is no hate here, no buried anger; the regressive politics underlying the cinematic murders of sexualized women by hulking, silent men would come later, conscious or unconscious expressions without the excuse of adhering to an underlying reality. This film is sad for its victims. It doesn’t scold them. It doesn’t leer. It doesn’t root for their enemy, doesn’t soften or idolize or sensationalize him. It just shows what he did with uninflected honesty, and then has the grace to let him slip out of the film into mystery.

– Kyu

Killtoberfest 3 continues! Click here for more horror (but not horrible) reviews, including Killtoberfests 1 and 2.