Reviewed by Patrick Cooper
The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a hugely entertaining atmospheric thriller saved from the bowels of obscurity by Scream Factory. It plays out more like a police procedural than a horror film (like Zodiac), with moments of terror and misplaced comedy peppered throughout. The film becomes even more interesting when you realize that, holy shit, it really is based on a true story of one of America’s earliest serial killers. Luckily, the new Blu-ray/DVD release from Scream Factory provides plenty of true crime trivia about the actual “Phantom Killer” that paralyzed the twin cities of Texarkana with fear back in 1946, while also giving the film its best presentation ever.
Filmmaker Charles B. Pierce took some liberties with his fictionalized depictions of the real life events, but it’s nonetheless an engaging and disturbing account of the killings. The film’s opening narration paints a post-WWII small town storybook world where everything was “swell.” Like most small towns back in the ’40s, the local youths of Texarkana slobbered all over each other in cars parked along the darkest parts of lonely roads. This sets the scene for the first attack by the hooded madman.
Shortly after this first attack, Deputy Norman Ramsey (Andrew Pine) comes across two gruesomely murdered people in the forest and just misses catching the killer. Now the grave seriousness of the situation is felt and the local police call in the cavalry. Texas Ranger Morales (Ben Johnson) arrives to help with his steely gaze and cowboy cool. While the cops scramble for a lead, the town is gripped with fear and people are afraid to leave their house at night. Y’know, they dread sundown.
Much like Pierce’s previous film The Legend of Boggy Creek, Sundown is presented as a quasi-documentary. The narration starts off enjoyable, setting the scene for the peaceful town to be shattered by the killer, but then it becomes annoying as it pretty much warns the audience that another person is about to be murdered. The kills themselves are pretty plausible, although there is one infamous scene involving a girl tied to a tree and a trombone. Although it’s an awful silly bit, after a few seconds of watching it the absurdity becomes disturbing in itself.
All the while, false accusations, spooked old women, and other paranoid distractions constantly hinder the investigation by Morales and the police. The whole town and surrounding areas were paralyzed with fear for several months, so it’s hard to grasp on film the urgency and tiredness experienced by law enforcement during this time. But it’s great that Pierce focused so much attention on the efforts of the law in the film, rather than just dwelling on the horrible murders. The film doesn’t feel like exploitation, which it very easily could have.
And the scariest part of it all: the killer was never caught. The murders just stopped and the police never solved the case. Some crime enthusiasts believe that the Phantom Killer could possibly be the Zodiac Killer, who operated in the San Francisco area in the late-‘60s, but shit, who knows.
The only parts that fumble a bit are the regrettable comedic moments. Pierce also stars in the film as “Sparkplug,” an enthusiastic Barney Fife character who bumbles his way through police work. On more than one occasion a failed joke or gag is accompanied by some form of the “sad trombone.” These well-intentioned bits sharply interrupt the serious ambience of the film, but at least they’re few and spaced far enough apart that they don’t ruin the whole thing.
True crime nuts and horror fans sort of go hand-in-hand, so The Town That Dreaded Sundown is sort of a perfect storm in that regard. And Scream Factory’s package comes very, very highly recommended.
Audio Commentary with Fangoria’s Justin Beahm and Historian Jim Presley: This track is a must-listen for anyone interested in the true-life killings. Jim Presley is an expert on the Phantom Killer and even grew up in and around Texarkana during the time. There’s loads of insight about the film’s accuracy and the gruesome murders.
Interview with Actor Andrew Pine: in this bit, Pine discusses what it was like working with Pierce and his enjoyment of the whole “circus” atmosphere. He’s got nothing but nice things to say about the people of Texarkana and how welcoming they were to the whole cast and crew.
Interview with Actress Dawn Wells: Wells (best known as Mary Anne from Gilligan’s Island) plays one of the real life women who survived an attack by the Phantom Killer. She tells a really funny and terrifying story about the pit bull used in her scene. And in case you were wondering, yes, she’s still the sexiest woman on the island. I was never into that slut Ginger.
Interview with DP James Roberson: This refined gentleman details how he got into cinematography and how he got involved with the project. He worked with Pierce previously on Winterhawk and has fond memories of the filmmaker.
“The Phantom of Texarkana”: this is a fantastic essay that covers the film and the real-life killer. There is some great information about the local backlash against the film and subsequent embrace
Trailer, Poster, and Still Gallery
SUPER AWESOME BONUS FEATURE: On the included DVD of Sundown, you’ll find Charles B. Pierce’s 1979 film The Evictors. This one’s another thriller and period piece set around World War II. A couple moves into a run-down house in Louisiana. Years before the house was the scene of a grisly showdown between landlord and tenants and, of course, some secrets stayed within the walls. It’s a genuinely moody, atmospheric film with some scary moments that are truly earned. Bravo, Scream Factory, for throwing in such a great bonus.