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 a film that relies less on a three-act narrative structure than as a wholeheartedly visceral experience where the situations, rather than the characters, stand out. Directed by Charles B. Pierce, the picture is based on a true story that took place in Texarkana, Texas, circa spring 1946, the town's residents coming under siege 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—this time viciously murdered. Deputy Sheriff Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine) and Texas Ranger J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson) are promptly brought onto the case, fearing a possible pattern is starting every three weeks. Just as the killer, nicknamed "The Phantom Killer," seems to shift into overdrive, he vanishes without a trace, never to be seen or heard from again.
Very little is learned 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 up the subject matter. Instead, "The Town That Dreaded Sundown" goes for a quasi-documentary feel throughout, its matter-of-fact portrayal of the crimes a big part of what makes the film so 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 culprit was, or what finally happened to him after his reign of terror came to an end.
The film is narrated with a no-nonsense demeanor throughout—a wise choice—bringing added realism to the proceedings. Also helping out is the meticulous way the story is played out, alternating between the investigation and sequences of shocking power as the murders are vividly and brutally reenacted. One particular scene involving a trombone and the prolonged, unsettling torture of a teenage girl in the woods is, no doubt, hair-raisingly tough to watch, but never seems to dip into cheap or pointless exploitation. Another sequence involving the attack on and narrow escape of a woman (former "Gilligan's Island" star Dawn Wells) at home signifies that not even the average townsperson behind locked doors is protected. Because of this, the stakes raise all the more.
By the conclusion of "The Town That Dreaded Sundown," a brief confrontation between the authorities and the killer occurs, but nothing comes of it, the "Phantom" mysteriously vanishing afterwards as if into thin air. In the closing moments, the viewer is left to ponder not only the whereabouts of the culprit, but the effect that such inconceivable crimes can have on a community. "The Town That Dreaded Sundown" leaves one with such striking moments of stark, raw terror that it puts many less serious horror films to shame. After all, these crimes actually happened, and just the thought of that is petrifying.
© 1998 by Dustin Putman