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Town That Dreaded Sundown, The (1976)

D: Charles B. Pierce / 89m

Cast: Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Dawn Wells, Jimmy Clem, Jim Citty, Charles B. Pierce, Robert Aquino, Cindy Butler, Christine Ellsworth, Earl E. Smith, Bud Davis

Texarkana, February 1946. As the inhabitants of the town continue to put the war behind them, a couple park up along the local lovers’ lane. They hear a noise outside the car and find themselves confronted by a man wearing a burlap sack over his head with eyeholes cut out (Davis). He rips out some of the engine wiring before shattering the driver’s window and dragging the man out of the car. He batters the man before turning his attention to the woman whom he assaults before leaving both of them for dead. They survive the attack but with so little to go on the police – led by Chief Sullivan (Citty) – are unable to make any headway in the case.

Three weeks later, another couple are attacked in their car. This time, their attacker shoots the man dead and assaults the woman before killing her too. A police officer, Deputy Ramsey (Prine), almost catches the killer but he makes good his escape. Yet again the police have no clues to help them catch the man, and with the citizens of Texarkana becoming ever more fearful, they call in the help of the Texas Rangers. Led by legendary Ranger Captain J.D. Morales (Johnson), the investigation falls under his purview and he arranges for more police cars to patrol the streets, a curfew after dark, and a news blackout.

However, following a junior and high schools prom, a young couple park up in one of the town’s parks but nod off. When they wake they’re attacked by the man now known as the Phantom Killer. The man is shot and killed, while the woman (a trombonist in the high school band) is tied to a tree and murdered when the killer ties his knife to the end of her trombone and repeatedly stabs her as he “plays” it. With still no clues or evidence to reveal the killer’s identity, Morales becomes less sure they’ll catch him. When he kills a man by shooting him in the head through a window and tries to kill the man’s wife (who succeeds in getting to safety), it seems as if the trail will run cold yet again. However, a car fitting the description of the one that Ramsey saw the night of the first murders is reported abandoned. Morales and Ramsey follow a nearby path to an old quarry, and there they find the Phantom Killer…

Town That Dreaded Sundown, The (1976) - scene

Based on real events that took place in Texarkana between February and May 1946, and dubbed the Moonlight Murders, The Town That Dreaded Sundown owes much to the drive-in features of the late Fifties and the Sixties, its independent, low budget feel so reminiscent of the movies from – and for – that period that it’s comforting to revisit such a lively era. With its ominous, scene-setting narration, effective recreation of post-war Texarkana, and silent killer, the movie has a quiet power in its killing scenes that makes them quite uncomfortable to watch. The sequence involving the trombone is the best example: in other hands, this could have been unintentionally funny, but Pierce focuses on the horror of the situation and keeps the Phantom Killer’s murderous intent at the forefront of things, his muffled breathing acting as a chilling counterpoint to the pleas of his victim.

All the attacks have an intensity about them that is hard to forget, and these often prolonged sequences are the movie’s strong suit; the movie also makes each successive event as terrifying as the one before. The decision to keep the killer from speaking is a wise one, and with his eyes staring out from his hood, the Phantom Killer’s implacable nature is never in doubt. He’s an early boogeyman, a proto-Michael Myers without the supernatural background. Never caught in real life, the movie posits its own (fictional) account of what might have happened, but it’s as credible as the idea that the police force would employ an officer as inept as patrolman Benson (Pierce).

For while The Town That Dreaded Sundown is incredibly gripping when the Phantom Killer is on screen, when he’s not we’re left with too many unsubtle, almost slapstick encounters with Benson and his inability to follow even the simplest of orders (and which leads to a Dukes of Hazzard-style car accident that feels like it was air-lifted in specially from the series). The character is very much a throwback to the type of comic relief that was prevalent in drive-in movies only a decade before, the kind of witless nincompoop who screws up continually but somehow retains his job and the goodwill of the people around him. Pierce is actually pretty good in the role, but it’s a jarring, unnecessary character, and while Benson may be there to lessen the horror of the murders, he’s on screen too often to be anything other than annoying.

Johnson is his usual gruff self, Morales’ increasing frustration at not being able to catch the killer tempered by his experience. It’s a great performance from Johnson, relaxed and yet coiled like a spring at the same time. The same, alas, can’t be said for Prine, who acts with all the stiffness of several planks of wood, and manages one or two decent line readings late on in the movie (just wait for any exchange over the police radio to see just how bad he is). The supporting cast are all fine without distinguishing themselves, though special mention should go to Davis, whose imposing presence precludes any hint of mercy that the killer may be susceptible to.

Pierce, a native of Texarkana, assembles the material with a fine eye for detail and as mentioned above, makes each attack so intense even the casual viewer will be transfixed. The script, by Earl E. Smith (who also appears as Dr Kress, the shrink who attempts to explain the killer’s motives), is mostly faithful to events as they happened, but anyone familiar with what really happened back then will be able to spot the necessary artistic licence used by Smith to tell the story in such a short running time. There’s some eerily atmospheric photography, especially at night, courtesy of James W. Roberson, and a robust score by Jaime Mendoza-Nava that underscores events with surprising panache. And anyone worried that the movie might be excessively gory will be pleasantly surprised as Pierce keeps the bloodletting to an onscreen minimum, choosing instead to focus on the fear and terror of the victims.

Rating: 7/10 – rough and uneven, but with a clear sense of the horror involved in the attacks/murders, The Town That Dreaded Sundown has a ferocity that acts like a slap to the viewer’s face; a minor true crime classic, and since 2003, shown in Texarkana each year as part of a “Movies in the Park” mini-festival.

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