Studio: Scream Factory
Director: Charles B. Pierce
Writer: Earl E. Smith
Producer: Charles B. Pierce
Stars: Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Jimmy Clem, Jim Citty, Charles B. Pierce, Robert Aquino, Cindy Butler, Christine Ellsworth, Dawn Wells, Bud Davis
A hooded serial murderer known as “The Phantom Killer” stalks the small town of Texarkana in 1946.
“The Town That Dreaded Sundown” is what “Zodiac” would have been like if instead of David Fincher, it was directed by the man who made “The Legend of Boggy Creek.” Having already collaborated on that 1972 creature feature about the legendary Fouke Monster, director Charles B. Pierce and screenwriter Earl E. Smith reteamed for the 1976 pseudo-slasher about the unsolved case of The Phantom Killer, and cemented their reputation as the Jan Harold Brunvand of Texarkana folklore.
What the duo hit upon with the first “Boggy Creek” film (review here) was an odd duck blueprint for merging real-life mystery and fantasized fiction into a campy combination of docudrama and horror. That strange polygamist marriage validated by an unexpected box office windfall, Pierce and Smith returned to the well with an even grander design on a melting pot mix of fact, fiction, carnage, comedy, and indescribable aesthetics that can only be categorized as: “The Town That Dreaded Sundown.”
When an unidentified madman who came to be known as “The Phantom Killer” went on a serial killing spree targeting couples in 1946, the border-straddling town of Texarkana went into full panic mode. Dusk’s nightly arrival brought with it locked doors, handguns at the hip, and one-eyed naps. Lovers Lanes turned into ghost towns, law enforcement littered the landscape, and the killer kept true to his name by ultimately vanishing like a ghost, leaving scratched scalps and slumped shoulders in his wake. “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” purports to be a dramatized account of The Phantom Killer and his “Moonlight Murders,” with only the names changed “to protect the innocent,” of course. Well, sort of, anyway.
“The Town That Dreaded Sundown” is a slasher film that doesn’t know it is a slasher film. Since the subgenre had yet to be clearly defined in 1976, Pierce and Smith didn’t have a formula to follow for straight serial killing scares and screaming teenagers, and they certainly didn’t have any responsibility to remain faithful to the facts. If the duo did, they might still have thrown any such recipe out the window in favor of their haphazard approach toward bouncing between gags and goofs before flipping to midnight murders and blood-spattered setpieces. With such a chaotic blend of slapstick, slaughter, police procedural, and true-crime melodrama, a criminal profiler applying psychology to the movie’s mindset would have no choice but to diagnose the film with dissociative identity disorder.
Charles B. Pierce himself features prominently as the film’s primary source of humorous hijinks and yokel yuk-yuks. Taking his Hitchcock to a whole new level, Pierce plays hapless patrolman A.C. “Spark Plug” Benson, a less animated Don Knotts-type prone to crashing cars into swamps and cross-dressing for a stakeout. Despite being a key component of its kitschy charm, the movie’s bizarrely unstable tone is so carelessly schizophrenic that it would not be out of the question if The Phantom Killer popped up in frame to put a plunger over his infamous trombone and accompany Benson’s travails with a Debbie Downer “wanh-wanh.”
“Careless” is a deceptive adjective, however. It isn’t that “Sundown” doesn’t care or doesn’t know what it is doing. It is that the film operates under a pretense that how it weirdly occupies its time is somehow integral to the value it wishes to have as a motion picture. That leaves the movie consistently undecided about where it wishes to land, spinning like a roulette wheel with an incorrigible jumping bean for a ball. Whether going through great pains to establish the era in a pre-credits sequence of car shopping, weddings, and kids attending college, or padding out the back half with a music montage at a high school dance, “Sundown” bears a curious sense of timing all throughout its 90-minute duration.
When the movie concentrates on the crimes, “Sundown” is at its best as effectively chilling serial murder mayhem. The Phantom Killer predates several slasher staples that would become commonplace by the turn of the decade. Foreshadowing the first look an adult Jason would don in “Friday the 13th Part 2” (review here), The Phantom’s bag-head hood is as simple a mask as The Shape’s and nearly as creepy. Labored breathing as his sole form of communication echoes the same guttural growls heard from Michael Myers just two years later in “Halloween” (review here), too.
Although he may be unrivalled at striking cold fear and evading capture, The Phantom is not someone you would want on your team when it comes to getting a job done. At least half of his victims either recover completely or survive long enough to crawl away before having to be assaulted a second time. While his surprisingly bloody savagery is mildly shocking for its time, and still somewhat scary forty years later, perhaps it should be expected given how sloppy a killer The Phantom actually is.
Rivaling The Phantom for ineffectiveness is his Sam Loomis: Captain J.D. Morales of the Texas Rangers. Morales’ arrival on the scene is met with impressed whistles from local police ready to bend at the knee and press lips to cheek at the honor of having a law enforcement legend showing them how it is done. Yet when a concerned citizen inquires about his plan of attack for capturing the killer, Morales offers only sarcastic snark from the side of his mouth. Probably because his tactics involve merely waiting for a sheriff, deputy, or random officer to phone in a real tip so he can play passenger as a mostly passive spectator always arriving after the fact.
Pinning down the film with a succinct summation is as elusive a goal as capturing the real Phantom Killer proved to be. Birthed at the beginning of a genre boom known for churning out derivative masked killer movies, it’s moderately remarkable that “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” is as unique as it is. “Sundown” certainly isn’t a landmark achievement, but it also isn’t a forgettable footnote in the annals of horror history, or even a “so bad, it’s good” romp. Rather, its midnight movie cult status is well-earned simply for being so difficult to quantify under any universal standard of film criticism. There really isn’t another film quite like “Sundown.” Except perhaps “The Legend of Boggy Creek,” but shouldn’t that be expected?
Review Score: 60