That Clown, That Dreadful Assclown

by Arthur B

Charles B. Pierce's mucking about ruins what might have been an interesting movie.
Director Charles B. Pierce had managed to produce a minor indie hit with his 1972 horror faux-documentary The Legend of Boggy Creek, and was commissioned by Samuel Z. Arkoff's American International Pictures to produce this somewhat more high-budget piece. Adopting the same style as Boggy Creek - combining narration and dramatic re-enactments of incidents to produce a quasi-documentary account of a supposedly true story, this piece has the distinction of actually being based on a real incident - namely, the Phantom killings that plagued the town of Texarkana in the wake of World War II.

Despite its pseudo-documentary tone, the film fails to convince as a serious and in-depth examination of all sides of the case. J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson), the shit-hot investigator sent up from Austin to investigate the case, is given an almost hagiographic treatment, greeted warmly by all the local dignitaries when he arrives at the station and taking time to stuff money into a blind man's collection cup and generally swaggering about like the most archetypal Southern gentleman the 1940s could offer.

If Morales is a two-dimensional caricature of a real human being (Manuel "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas) whose actual personality was probably far more interesting than the bland sketch presented here, the film is served even worse by its main invented character. You see, there's an absolutely ridiculous amount of comic relief in the movie, and it typically surrounds the character of A.C. "Sparkplug" Benson, who is played by Pierce himself. Pierce shamelessly milks his scenes for all they're worth; any joke surrounding Sparkplug takes an idea better suited for a ten-second aside and manages to pad it out to several minutes of tone-wrecking tripe. Ohohohoho, Sparkplug is assigned to be Morales' driver and loses the car keys and is a terrible driver! Ahahahahaha, Sparkplug has to dress up in drag for a sting where they put police officers in cars in lovers' lanes in the hope that the killer will take the bait and his buddy for the evening gropes him! In general, any bit of the movie in which Pierce is actually onscreen instead of behind the camera is absolutely fucking awful, lasts far longer than the joke it's telling could possibly merit, utterly wrecks whatever tension and atmosphere the foregoing scenes have managed to develop, at some points ends up completely wrecking the delivery of important plot points, and is usually offensive on some level too.

Take, for instance, our introduction to Sparkplug: the joke here is that Sparkplug keeps getting phoned by a married lady friend of his who complains about her husband being abusive to her, and Sparkplug threatens the husband with lethal violence towards him and his dog, and the chief of police tells Sparkplug off, and then Sparkplug immediately turns around and does it again and the chief of police rolls his eyes and we're meant to laugh off a cop abusing his power in this way (even for the sake of kicking an abusive husband's ass) like it's somehow funny and not close to the bone. Most particularly, we seem to be intended to laugh with the police in this case, instead of at them - this isn't a film very interested in biting critical satire directed at law enforcement so much as it's about painting them as two-dimensional heroes and the occasional loveable comic relief goon.

Actually I'll give the "Sparkplug" stuff this much credit: Sparkplug's abuse of his power is a neat inadvertent metaphor for the way Pierce was abusing his position as director to try and carve out a career as a comedy actor for himself in the middle of a movie about a real-life serial killer. Perhaps the most damning thing about this whole debacle is the way Pierce's excessive padding out of the Sparkplug sections sabotages all the good work he does in the rest of the movie to establish the tone - for instance, any tension or excitement that might have been generated by a high-speed car chase tearing after the first decent suspect that pops up ends up being absolutely squandered by Sparkplug goofing up his driving and careering into a lake.

Wrecking a movie by crowbarring in a whole heap of tonally inappropriate comedy seems to be a recurring habit of Pierce's; his 1980s sequel to Boggy Creek (Boggy Creek II: And the Legend Continues...) richly earned the treatment it got on Mystery Science Theater 3000 due to the way it repeatedly threw in pointless comedy segments, though in that case those were at least necessary to pad out a plot which you could fit onto one side of a business card into a feature-length running time. In this case, with a real-life murder case to draw on I can't believe that Pierce was incapable of filling the running time of the movie with more examination of the real evidence, or a deeper exploration of some of the characters involved, so the invention of Sparkplug to fill time seems absolutely purposeless except as a way to lazily kill time without doing more legwork.

On the flipside, for the most part any scene involving the Phantom himself is a real standout; Bud Davis, the actor who spends all of his appearances under the killer's simple sack mask, manages to project a mixture of vicious hatred and unhinged, unacceptable lust despite only having his eyes, breathing, and body language to convey what he needs to get across, and the murder sequences are bereft of narration or comic relief and are presented in an unflinchingly brutal and realistic way. (The standout exception here is a bit where the killer stabs one of his victims by tying a knife to the end of a trombone and using it to stab her; my understanding is there that there is no evidence that such a thing happened.)

The major problem facing scriptwriter Earl E. Smith is the open-ended nature of the case; in real life as in here, the Phantom murders just sort of petered out. Smith and Pierce contrive a shootout that the Phantom escapes from to provide something resembling a climax, but since it doesn't really resolve anything it doesn't feel satisfying from a storytelling point of view and, since it didn't happen, feels dishonest from the point of view of portraying the real events - as, for that matter, does the addition of features like Sparkplug, the goody-two-shoes spin on Morales, or the trombone bit. Moreover, due to the fact that many of the people involved were still alive and presumably could sue for libel, there's next to no speculation or details about the real-life suspects, and interesting plot points are spun out without really being used for anything interesting. For instance, it's mentioned at one point that the killer seems to know what's going on in the investigation, which suggests some sort of leak, or even that the killer is one of the cops, but nobody really chases this up - which is a shame, because I'd have kind of liked to see Sparkplug go to the electric chair.

Under constraints such as this, it could in principle be possible to construct a good film regardless - I've not seen Zodiac but I hear it does a good job of depicting the Zodiac Killer case (which I personally think is one of the most interesting serial killer cases out there, if only for the way the Zodiac got away with taunting the cops to the extent that he did when usually when people go down the "wild letters to the cops" route they get caught sharpish). This, however, is not that film; instead, it just strings together a series of vignettes showing slices of 1940s life and the documented killings and caps it off with a hasty conclusion.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown seems to retain an inexplicably good reputation in some film circles, and even got a remake in 2014. It's sometimes cited as a forerunner of the slasher movie, and I guess there's two important ways in which it set the pattern of the genre. First off, its masked killer performing gruesomely realistic killings probably helped shape the idea of the movie serial killer, though Leatherface did it with more style in Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Billy from Black Christmas managed to be a more threatening offscreen presence, and both of those movies preceded this one by some years. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the movie is utter shit, and many slasher movies have followed its example by being utter shit.

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Comments (go to latest) at 21:40 on 2016-01-20
Long time reader, first time writer! I haven't seen this yet, and to be honest it's doubtful that I will, however I have seen the remake. Well, it's a sort of remake, as it's about a modern day copycat of the phantom killings, with the original film being part of the plot. It's actually not too bad, but one of the most interesting things about it is the relationship to the original. While it does overstate a bit the original's reputation at points (nobody has ever used the word classic in the same sentence as the title!), it's also not afraid to show it as being a grubby little cash-grab of a film of very questionable taste. At one point, a character does watch and does a "seriously?" look on his face at the trombone bit. Another side character is the son of Charles B. Pierce, who's a hapless bum trading on memorabilia of daddy's films, although he does give an exposition dump that helps the leads out later on. It's worth a look, not least for a better ending, a lot more thought and care, and no bloody Sparkplug! Mind, it does have it's own problems, like blatantly stealing some stuff from Scream for starters. Oh, and yes, it does restage the trombone murder!
Arthur B at 22:31 on 2016-01-20
Hey Ed, thanks for commenting.

Weirdly, whilst the trombone murder as part of something presenting itself as a realistic presentation of actual events is ridiculous, it kind of makes sense as something a copycat killer inspired by the original film would do.
Ronan Wills at 21:36 on 2016-01-21
Zodiac is a really good movie, but it unhesitatingly regurgitates blatant falsehoods and accepts as fact theories that are dubious at best. To take just one example, a big part of the film hinges on the idea that a newspaper cartoonist-- the protagonist and the author of the true crime book the movie is based on-- solved one of the Zodiac ciphers, but his solution isn't considered valid. It also implies that a real-life handwriting expert involved with the case was an alcoholic (from what I can gather there's no evidence for this) and straight-up invents shit to bolster the case against the main suspect.

On the topi at hand though, I've always found the idea of this sort of faux-documentary style surrounding crimes (as opposed to horror or supernatural occurrences) interesting. Does anyone know if it's ever been done in a book format? I could see that working a lot better than a film.
Arthur B at 21:57 on 2016-01-21
Sounds like Zodiac is thoroughly in the tradition of The Town That Dreaded Sundown, except Town didn't have the balls to actually advance a theory in the first place.
sotrain515 at 17:12 on 2016-01-25
You should really watch Zodiac, Arthur! As Ronan points out it plays kind of fast and loose with true events but I'm firmly in the "never let the truth ruin a good story" camp as far as that goes. I admit that it's a little worse in this case since it's essentially accusing a real person of being a serial killer but... uh... yeah.

For my money it's Fincher's best movie.
A great example of how to tell a story that doesn't have a concrete ending, too.
Sister Magpie at 20:30 on 2016-02-19
Totally agree with this review--it's all coming back to me now that I read about it!

I also second or third the suggestion to watch Zodiac. Not as a documentary, of course, but it's a great movie about obsession over a question that will never ever be answered. It's a movie I surprised myself by watching again immediately after the first time. Definitely my favorite of Finscher's!
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