Sunday, February 19, 2012
I’m a sucker for cult movies.
I've always loved obscure, low budget flicks that nobody's ever heard of. They often put Hollywood blockbusters to shame with their inventiveness and originality.
I remember going to see Jimmy Cliff in “The Harder They Come” in a theater on the Upper East Side when I was in high school. And then there was “Once in Paris,” which came out in 1978 and, if my memory is correct, played at the now defunct 68th Street Playhouse for over a year.
Watching these movies, you feel like a member of a select club, one of the in-crowd. You just can’t wait to leave the theater and go out into the world where you can drop the title of an obscure film and enjoyed the puzzled looks on your friends’ faces.
The trouble is that, like anything else in life, what makes a good cult movie is a matter of opinion. One person’s brilliant piece of work can be the next person’s pretentious pile of crapola.
Recently I recorded a movie called “The Town That Dreaded Sundown.” I had heard about this film—a “minor cult classic,” according to one description—a few years ago and since it’s not available on DVD, I made sure to fire up the DVR so I could finally watch the thing.
The film comes with the dreaded tagline “based on a true story,” which usually means the story vaguely resembles something that actually happened. This contrasts with the handle “inspired by a true story,” which tends to mean “we totally yanked this one out our butts.”
The movie is loosely based—and, oh, do I mean loosely--upon a series of murders that occurred in Texarkana in 1946. I’d say “inspired,” but the only thing this film inspired me to do was to delete it as soon as the ending credits started to roll.
The real case, which remains unsolved, is fascinating and frightening and far beyond anything the film has to offer.
Now I’m not saying I could make a better movie. I’m saying a monkey could make a better movie. And you’d only have to give him bananas and a rubber tire.
I don’t know how you can take such riveting source material and churn out such a dull, lifeless film. But the filmmakers managed to do just that.
What's The Story?
The Texarkana Moonlight Murders had people in two states fearing their neighbors as a masked killer stalked their town.
Five people were killed in a two-month period, during which time people stocked up on firearms, barricaded their homes, and stopped going out at night.
Investigators had a strong suspect, a career criminal whose wife told police that she was with her husband when he committed the murders. However, she kept changing her story and the suspect, Youell Swinney, was never charged with the crime.
Unfortunately the “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” never captures any of the terror that Texarkana residents experienced.
It’s poorly directed and marred by bits of alleged “comic relief” in the form of a dimwitted cop nicknamed “Spark Plug” that offer neither comedy nor relief.
Ben Johnson, one of my favorite actors, shows up as a legendary Texas Ranger called in to investigate the case, but the film makes little use of his considerable skills.
The movie lurches into “Dukes of Hazard” territory when Spark Plug blows a gasket, goes full metal Barney Fife, and crashes his patrol car into a swamp. It was painful watching an actor of Ben Johnson’s stature emerging from the wreck and walking knee-deep in muck.
Every October near Halloween, the movie is shown at a park where two of the murders were committed. I would’ve thought that the people in this area suffered enough without having to go through this yearly torment, but I guess any publicity really is good publicity.
The real case still fascinates me. A few years ago, a Texas television station did an anniversary story about the unsolved killings. One of the retired investigators who was interviewed for the story steadfastly maintained that Youell Swinney was the killer.
However, as often happens in cases like these, there is a nagging detail that sheds a little doubt on the prime suspect.
Some of the victims’ relatives told police that they had received a phone call from a woman who apologized “for what her father had done to them.”
As far as anyone knows, Swinney had no daughter. Of course, there’s always the possibility that she was illegitimate or that this mystery caller was deranged. However, that seems a little strange to me.
While people have been known to confess to crimes that didn’t commit in a desperate bid for attention, this woman is anonymously apologizing for someone else’s crime. That’s an odd way to get attention.
Either way, it sounds like a great opening for a movie.