Directed by: Charles B. Pierce
Written by: Earl E. Smith
Starring: Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Dawn Wells, and Bud Davis
Reviewed by: Wes R.
The Zodiac Killer terrorized San Francisco, California during the late 60s and early 70s. His brutal crimes were so random and bizarre that for a period of time, he completely polarized with fear not just the nearby community, but the nation as well. To this day, the identity of the Zodiac Killer is still a complete mystery to investigators, as the case is yet unsolved. The Zodiac case has been discussed and disected in many books, movies, and television programs over the years, but few in the mainstream are aware that a mere two decades before, there was another real life lover’s lane stalker that terrorized a community… and ultimately got away with it. I am of course, speaking of the Phantom Killer of Texarkana. Like Zodiac, The Phantom Killer’s crimes remain unsolved and just as puzzling as ever. Though Zodiac has had many films made about him, the Phantom (as of this writing) has only one: Charles B. Pierce’s drive-in favorite, The Town That Dreaded Sundown.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: A masked killer is stalking random couples at a lover's lane type location and killing them in a number of creative and brutal ways on nights of a full moon. Yes, this may sound like your average slasher fare, but these events actually occurred back along the Texas and Arkansas border back in 1946. As stated, the case remains unsolved to this day. A Texas Ranger and a team of dedicated deputies and police officials try their hardest to track him down, even going to the length of dressing like teenagers parked for a make-out session (a tactic that was also utilized in the same year’s Drive-In Massacre). Aware that his M.O. has been widely spread by the media, the Phantom Killer changes things by attacking a random couple in a farmhouse. Soon, the Phantom and the Ranger have a showdown near a set of train tracks and the killer is badly wounded. Will he evade justice as he did in real life or will viewers be treated to a happier, more Hollywood style ending?
The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a fantastic film. Upon reading the description, you may be thinking “another slasher film”, but keep in mind that this was filmed and released before John Carpenter sent The Shape into Haddonfield. With serial killers gaining more and more exposure on the evening news, this film was probably one of the earliest examples of the “true crime” sub-genre. The use of narration gives the film a documentary feel, adding a chilling realism to the proceedings... paving the way for the countless "true crime" television programs like "Justice Files" and "Cold Case Files" of today. In many ways, the movie plays like an extended segment from an episode of "Unsolved Mysteries". All we’re missing is Robert Stack in a trench coat standing on a foggy street. It’s odd that a film like this played so well in drive-ins because most modern “true crime” films focus more on character and a deliberate pace rather than the exploitation and entertainment factor that grindhouse were used to. However, The Town That Dreaded Sundown can strangely work as both. Someone wanting to sit down and enjoy a good based-on-a-true-story serial killer film can get as much out of the film as someone simply looking for a good popcorn horror flick.
While more at home in Westerns like The Wild Bunch and Shane, Academy Award winning actor Ben Johnson is perfectly cast as a Texas Ranger hot on the trail of the Phantom Killer. His stern demeanor sets the tone for the seriousness of the film. This is no bumbling sheriff. This is a man on a mission to stop someone from turning their small, peaceful town into a nightmare. Aside from his work in this film, his brief stint in the horror genre would also include 1978’s The Swarm and 1980’s slasher classic Terror Train. The rest of the cast does well, but I don’t believe any of them went on to further fame in the genre. However, there is one fairly famous actress who made an appearance in the film, no doubt to try to cast another shining light on her quickly fading star. Dawn Wells (“Mary Ann” from Gilligan’s Island appears as a near-victim of the Phantom Killer. 80s B-movie fans will recognize actor Andrew Prine from Amityville II: The Possession and the Charles Band produced actioner, Eliminators.
The Phantom Killer himself is quite scary. His intense breathing and silent aggression gives horror fans a terrifying boogeyman to fear. If the real life Phantom was as menacing and creepy as the one portrayed in this film by actor Bud Davis, it’s easy to see why everyone dreaded sundown back in 1946. Though many say that Friday the 13th Part 2 copied off of this film by having Jason wear a white sack over his head, this is what the real life Phantom Killer reportedly wore during the murders. And besides, there have been hooded killers in horror films before The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Can’t we enjoy two white sack masked killers instead of labeling one a rip-off? At the very least, it shows how impressed Steve Miner and company were with the intimidating appearance of the Phantom Killer. It's a nice homage. The musical score by longtime horror and exploitation composer Jamie Mendoza-Nava (Creature From Black Lake, Mausoleum, and Grave of the Vampire to name a few) is very effective, if a little dated.
Director Charles B. Pierce is probably better known for his 1972 entry in the Bigfoot-inspired sub-genre, The Legend of Boggy Creek. The death scenes here aren’t particularly bloody, but they get the job done. In a slight deviation from the real life story that the film is based on, one truly unique death scene involves the Phantom Killer attaching a knife to a trombone. Yes, the musical instrument. After tying an intended victim to a tree, he then plays a crude tune on the trombone (impaling the victim with each extension of the instrument’s slide). This may read kind of silly (and in a lesser film, it would have been), but it’s filmed so frankly and seriously that it has a sinister and eerie tone that it leaves the viewer in shock rather than giggles. It’s so weird seeing a slasher type premise playing out in 1946 America, and it’s all the more shocking that these crimes actually occurred. We all know that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre never happened exactly as portrayed in the film, but this story actually did. Leatherface never existed, but the Phantom Killer did. From most accounts, the film is fairly faithful to the real-life story, although like any “true crime” film, there are a few dramatic deviations. The showdown between the Phantom and the Texas Ranger never occurred, although in real life, one of the top suspects in the murders was found stabbed to death on a set of train tracks (which some say was also the work... perhaps the last... of the Phantom). The film has a touch of humor, but it’s never played broadly and it never goes over the top. The humor comes from real situations (the deputies posing as a make-out couple for one) and are used more for levity than knee-slapping laughs.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown is not only among the best slasher movies ever made, but is also one of the very best true crime films. Simply put, it is a must-see. If you enjoy true crime films like Zodiac and the other multitude of lesser serial killer films out there of varying quality, it will keep you intrigued. Horror and slasher fans will also find much to love here, as we have a truly scary killer, atmospheric suspense sequences, and great direction and performances. After watching it, it’s easy to see why it is beloved by so many genre fans. In a genre where we often tolerate bad films just to enjoy a really inventive death scene or two or an interesting villain, it’s refreshing when you can sit down and enjoy a genuinely good and effective film. It may wear its B-movie budget on its sleeve, but the film never feels cheap. It’s well-made and sure to find a welcome home on any horror fan’s movie shelf right among the genre’s best. It’s a shame that MGM and Fox are still (as of this writing) sitting on this film. A restored widescreen print reportedly played on Canada's ScreamTV a while back, but there still hasn't been a DVD release. In the original scope aspect ratio and perhaps with a featurette or documentary on the actual crimes, a DVD or Blu-Ray of the film would be a welcome treat. Until then, do yourself a favor and track down a used VHS copy. It's not all that hard to find. After viewing the film, you’ll hold your significant other just a little tighter and keep your eyes open just a little bit wider on those moonlit lover’s lane evenings. Although unlikely (depending on his age at the time of the killings) the Phantom Killer could still be out there… watching and waiting for another full moon to fuel his demented cravings for murder. Buy it!
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