The Town that Dreaded Sundown is not the most important film in the career of director Charles B. Pierce - almost beyond question, that honor goes to 1972's The Legend of Boggy Creek - and maybe it's not even his most interesting. It is, however, his best, and the one that best combines the director's fascinating amateur cinematic sensibility and some feeling that it's actually, y'know, a movie. Pierce ranks alongside Herschell Gordon Lewis as one of America's most successful regional filmmakers (assuming we're not counting Southern California as a "region"), and his most characteristic films have a tendency to feel like elaborate home movies dedicated to the people and land of Arkansas, made with a kind of intuitive and frequently 100% ineffective aesthetic that almost deserves to be called outsider art. The Town that Dreaded Sundown fits neatly into this tradition; it is a swoony love letter to the city of Texarkana, circa 1946, and to the forests and swamps surrounding it, and it frequently allows that love to eradicate anything like narrative momentum or tone. And yet it stars Ben Johnson - Oscar winner Ben Johnson, by that point - as big as life, giving it a weird legitimacy.

Also, unlike Pierce's other films, which exist in some kind of mythic fever dream place that seems indebted to nothing other than the director's private whims, The Town that Dreaded Sundown slides neatly into the tradition of mysterious psycho killers that was percolating in the States all throughout the '70s. It's a police procedural at heart, but with a murderer who wouldn't look remotely out of place in an Italian giallo (whose visual appearance, moreover, is a clear influence on Jason Voorhees mk. 1 from Friday the 13th, Part 2, five years later), and whose preferred methods of killing grow more baroque as the film progresses; there's a peculiar trombone-based death some two-thirds of the way presented with an absurd flair and sense of black comedy that feel like something from the slasher film in its first desperate phase, around 1983 or '84, far more than like anything happening in America in '76.

The film is based on a true story, and unlike virtually every subsequent horror or thriller film to make that claim, you can still actually see most of the real history through Pierce and screenwriter Earl E. Smith's thin fog of zesty exploitation (the film was, after all, distributed by American International Pictures; we should be deeply grateful that there's only the small amount of prurient editorialising that we get). In '46, from March until May, Texarkana was haunted by four attacks by a never-caught assailant, arbitrarily choosing isolated people (always in couples, though not always in a sexual context) and savagely attacking them. The first couple, necking on the local Lover's Lane, survived, and sent up the alarm; for the next couple of months, Texarkana deputy sheriff Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine) is the chief local law enforcement agent working the series of dead ends making up the case, while legendary Texas Ranger J.D Morales (Johnson) comes to town to add his expertise and gravitas. A second attack happens 21 days after the first; then a third 21 days after that; then the killer, by now nicknamed the Phantom, changes up his pattern, all without ever giving the cops a chance to predict his movements or get out in front of him or do more than watch him recede in the the distance.

It's a captivating film, but a bizarrely messy one ("but", do I say? Nay, the two facts are deeply related), owing in large part to Pierce's unerring eye for local color and detail. And to the film's inconsistent generic framework; building on Boggy Creek, The Town that Dreaded Sundown presents itself, in moments, as a kind of docudrama, or at least a series of re-enactments, contextualised by a smooth-voiced narrator (Vern Stierman) with fussy, authoritative collection of details about whos and whats and whens and wheres. It is a film anxious about Getting It All Right, and this leads it to a place of unexpected hyper-realism of a sort, where the little undramatic bits and pieces in between policework are presented with strict attention. Morales, upon arriving in Texarkana, walks to a newstand to buys a handful of cigars, an act depicted in real time despite it having not a damn thing to do with anything else; we are privy to roundabout conversations, and scenes of calling for backup and confirming that backup is coming and confirming that it's all right to move all along, and having to click the radio transmitter button a couple of times to get the police station to pick up; all very square and by the books, I have no doubt, and all deeply unusual in a movie, given that the form does tend to expect at least some level of forward motion, consistently. But it's stuff like this that gives The Town that Dreaded Sundown its oh-so-distinctive character, even more than the way it plays like a Southern fried Bava thriller down up as a docudrama.

If the dominant mode of the film is a period police procedural - and it unquestionably is - it nevertheless functions more than satisfactorily as a movie about a mysterious serial killer; it is not a horror film according to any strict definition, but it captures a feeling of inexplicable dread better than most straight-up genre pictures ever manage to. There's the obvious matter of its "slasher" scenes (though that word wouldn't have been first on anyone's tongues back in '76), which are honestly tense and scary and shocking like the vast majority of such sequences are not: particularly in the opening, when that human form with two bright eyes staring from a white sack simply pops into view, it's actually unsettling as all the Jasons in all the camps in all the world never managed to be. Part of it is simply that Bud Davis, playing the killer, is absolutely superb, making his energetic, gibbering monster of a role something that is clearly human in a degraded, awful form, while so many later slashers would feel very much other than human; he is a realistic and thus real threat compared to pick any damn psycho killer of the '80s.

The other, greater part is that, like I said, The Town that Dreaded Sundown isn't a horror film: it's a dramatic film about horror. Pierce's films are all very much of a piece, capturing the texture and physical space of life in his chosen location (often though not always the American South) with an unforced easiness. One gets the impression from watching his work that he was a good observer of people, and knew how they acted, and even when the writing and the acting borders on, or crosses into amateurishness, there's a kind of relaxed naturalism about his material. And of course, the writing and acting nearly always cross into amateurishness, but that's not the point I'm aiming at. The Town that Dreaded Sundown, with its heavily articulated post-WWII setting and its wide array of incidents in small-town post-war Arkansas, has a beautifully lived-in quality, not asking us to believe bromides about rural innocence but acknowledging the frustration and lust and anger and boredom that was as true in '46 as in '76 and now. For the quietness and low-key intimacy that brings with it to cut into screaming and dead bodies and the occasional baroque nighttime visual is jarring and eery in a way that doesn't require the filmmakers to actively strive for horror style. It is, after all, about the TOWN that dreaded sundown, not the sundown killer, and the film's greatest success is to marry in its own shifting tones the way that what happened in '46 felt like a perversion and violation of that town's sense of calm and safety.

That being said, there are three clear problems with the film: four if we count its generally slapdash, low-budget, one-and-done feeling, but I'm inclined to cut regional filmmakers working from the hip a bit of slack, even when they manage to suppose that Sunday could fall on 3 March and Saturday on 24 March, and that in same calendar year (the former is correct). No, let's stick with three problems. One of these is the narration: building on Boggy Creek, the film wants to make sure we understand how real and rooted in history it is, and so there's chatter about everything, even when the scene construction explains exactly what we know in a strictly narrative, not docudrama fashion. It's distracting at best and outrageously campy at worst. Second is Jaime Mendoza-Nava's score, a crazy collage of styles and moods with no rhyme or reason, though generally the points where it is most noticeable are exactly those points where dead silence would be best for the development of tension, the emphasis on naturalism, or both.

Third and worst, Pierce cast himself in the medium-size role of patrolman A.C. "Sparkplug" Benson, and like most characters with a made-up nickname in quotes, Sparkplug is comic relief. Fucking horrible comic relief. The kind of comic relief who, to pull of a sting, decides to dress up as the ugliest woman in the world, like it's an afternoon cartoon show where the only logic is absurdity. Or the kind of comic relief who, standing in front of a big board marked CAR KEYS with only one key hanging on it could turn and ask his boss where the keys to the car are kept. Re-watching the film, there's less Sparkplug than I thought there was, but it doesn't change the fact that every single moment he's onscreen is absolute death, with even the other characters seemingly confused why their serious murder investigation has to keep ceding space to this ludicrous yokel. Worse films have had worse comic relief; so have better films. But it's fascinating and aggravating to me that Pierce made such an irredeemable waste of a character and then chose to embody that waste himself. I take it to always mean something when a director plays a role in his or her movie, and in The Town that Dreaded Sundown, the only thing I can suppose it means is "Hi, I'm Charles B. Pierce, and I'm a giant asshole".

Body Count: 5, with three survivors of what feel like they ought to be body count deaths; but that's historical fealty for you.