Based loosely on the true story of a hooded serial killer who stalked the streets and back roads in and around Texarkana, murdering five people between February and May 1946, without ever getting caught, the film stars Ben Johnson as the Texas Ranger sworn to track the maniac down, Andrew Prine (“The Miracle Worker”) as a local deputy and Dawn Wells (“Gilligan’s Island”) as one of the victims. A lot of local amateur Texarkana “talents” are cast in supporting roles, which adds a bit of realism to the film’s faux-documentary style.
Then they drop a Barney Fife-like character named Patrolman A.C. “Sparkplug” Benson (none other than Pierce himself) into the middle of the fray to provide unnecessary comedy relief in all the wrong places (dressing in clownish drag to act as a decoy, driving police cars into the middle of farm ponds, etc.) and the film starts to resemble something like Michael Myers meets the Dukes of Hazzard. All the requisite tension, shocks and the “Dread” of the title — i.e. the necessary ingredients of an effective horror film — are dampened severely by all the silliness.
What’s even more baffling about this fact-based film is that Pierce (“The Legend of Boggy Creek”) — along with screenwriter Earl E. Smith (“Sudden Impact”) — utterly fails to realize the story’s potential for creepy atmospherics and deep chills. On the contrary, one almost expects to hear goofy banjo music on the soundtrack, and, sure ’nuff, the hootenanny picking kicks in during a chaotic rural car chase sequence.
The director does a much better job achieving all the necessary spooky effects with the bonus DVD-only second feature, “The Evictors” (1979), another ’40s period piece about a young couple (Michael Parks and Jessica Harper) who move into an eerie house with a violent history in a small Louisiana town, and find themselves tormented in terrifying ways by the previous owners. Vic Morrow is effectively sinister as the mysterious realtor who sells them the place.
— Gene Triplett