The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)
Directed by Charles B. Pierce
Cast: Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Dawn Wells, Christine Ellsworth, Charles B. Pierce.
1976 90 minutes
Rated: (for violence, gore, and profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, November 18, 1998.
"The Town That Dreaded Sundown" is not a film that relies on a narrative, as much as it is a wholeheartedly visceral experience, in which it is not the characters that stand out, but the situations. Based on a true story that took place in Texarkana, Texas, circa spring 1946, a town becomes horrified when two young people are attacked one night at a Lovers' Lane by an inexplicable hooded killer. They narrowly survive the ordeal, but the people of the town, not used to such violent crimes taking place so close to them, enter into a frenzy, terrified that he might strike again. Exactly twenty-one days later, two more lovers are found in a similar setting, but this time viciously murdered.
Immediately, Deputy Sheriff Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine) and Texas Ranger J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson) are brought onto the case, fearing a possible pattern is starting every three weeks. Nicknamed "The Phantom Killer," the community goes into panic as the slayer goes into overdrive during that spring, only to vanish without a trace thereafter.
We learn very little about the characters, whether it be the police officers or victims, and, in fact, one of the supporting policemen is played inappropriately as a comic device to most likely lighten the subject matter up. Instead, "The Town That Dreaded Sundown" goes for a quasi-documentary feel throughout, as the crimes are documented, and that is why the film is successful. What is so absolutely fascinating about the case is that it was, and still remains, a completely baffling occurrence in which no one ever found out who the "The Phantom Killer" was. And there is also the mystery about what finally happened to him after he abruptly stopped his murder spree.
The film is matter-of-factly narrated throughout, which was a wise choice. It largely makes the film seem more real, and it is helped out by the exact way the story is played out, as the film alternates throughout from the investigation to sequences of shocking power as the murders are vividly and brutally reenacted. One particular scene involving the prolonged, unsettling torture of a teenage girl in the woods, is, no doubt, tough to watch and frightening, but it is not filmed as a means of pointless exploitation, but rather as an example of how accurately drawn and realistic director Pierce wanted the film to be.
By the conclusion of "The Town That Dreaded Sundown," a brief confrontation between the authorities and the killer occurs, but nothing comes of it, as the "Phantom" vanishes afterwards without a trace. In the penultimate moment, we are left to ponder not only the whereabouts of the culprit, but the effect that such an inconceivable crime can have on any one person. "The Town That Dreaded Sundown" leaves us with such striking moments of stark, raw terror, that it puts many less serious horror films to shame. After all, this crime actually happened, and just the thought of that is petrifying.
© 1998 by Dustin Putman