[The following review contains MINOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
The Town That Dreaded Sundown is essentially two different movies haphazardly sewn together—a grotesque, shambling affront to nature akin to Brundlefly, Frankenstein’s monster, or the Fiji mermaid.
The first is a haunting portrait of a quaint, quiet community terrorized by a sadistic serial killer. Presented in a pseudo-documentary style, this half of the experience is a genuinely effective horror film, anticipating both the slasher genre and Bong Joon-ho’s far more accomplished Memories of Murder (which is also based on an unsolved crime spree, and therefore likewise lacks a concrete resolution). The murderer around whom the conflict revolves is a terrifying manifestation of postwar trauma, anxiety, and impotent rage: his eyes blaze like hot coals beneath his makeshift mask, which expands and contracts like a pulsating heart with every labored breath he takes. The climactic sequence in which he shoots a defenseless housewife in the face before relentlessly pursuing her through a nearby cornfield is as deliciously suspenseful as it is excruciatingly uncomfortable to watch.
The second, on the other hand, is the worst slapstick comedy ever committed to celluloid, courtesy of Patrolman A.C. “Sparkplug” Benson. Played by director Charles B. Pierce (who really should have stayed behind the camera—though even that is debatable, as fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 can attest), this bumbling small town cop makes Barney Fife seem competent and dignified in comparison—and he is, unfortunately, the most prominent supporting character, constantly subjecting the audience to aggressively unfunny vaudeville routines that both disrupt the pace and diminish the tension. His poor driving, for example, is the source of much “hilarity,” leading to many flattened cigars and submerged vehicles. In a later scene, he disguises himself in drag (unconvincingly) for an undercover sting operation—an already inert gag that’s aged about as well as you’d expect.
While The Town That Dreaded Sundown’s merits outweigh its shortcomings, its flaws are ultimately too fundamental to ignore entirely. It’s worth a gander for its historical significance (its influence on Friday the 13th Part 2, in particular, is indisputable), but I doubt that I’ll revisit it in the future.