**** Out of 5
Tagline- In 1946 This Man Killed Five People; Today He Still Lurks the Streets of Texarkana, Ark
Release Date- December 24th, 1976
Running Time- 86-Minutes
Screenplay- Earl E. Smith
Director- Charles B. Pierce
Starring- Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Jimmy Clem, Jim Citty, Charles B. Pierce and Bud Davis as the Phantom Killer
Released in 1976 The Town That Dreaded Sundown is based off a real life murder spree that took place in Texarkana, Ark back in 1946 from February 22nd to May 3rd. I’ve read about the case, but not enough to be an expert on it, but the film takes the basic premise, but also adds a little bit of fiction. I’ve always had an interest in true crime and cases like this are truly fascinating to me. The killer was dubbed The Phantom Killer and he was never captured and there was only one suspect, but there wasn’t enough evidence to make a case. The true story is actually quite terrifying and since we don’t know anything about the killer it makes things even creepier as you can let your imagination can run away with you. The Town That Dreaded Sundown isn’t a slasher flick, but it does have slasher elements and the movie was also a clear influence on several slasher flicks including Friday the 13th Part 2 as Jason’s look was clearly inspired by this movie as the Phantom Killer wears a sack over his head just like Jason did and there were quite a few scenes recreated in Friday the 13th Part 2, which actually kind of cheapens Friday the 13th Part 2 where you see how they got ideas for a majority of the scenes. The Town That Dreaded Sundown may not be the most known movie, but has built up a cult following and for good reason, but with that said the movie isn’t perfect.
Upon my first viewing of The Town That Dreaded Sundown I will admit to be finding it to be a letdown since I sort of went in expecting a slasher movie, which as I mentioned before this movie does have plenty of slasher elements, but its not a straight up slasher flick like some reviews have made it out to be. Years later for some reason I wanted to see the film again and with only at the time a VHS release, which was obviously OOP and a bit pricey I was lucky enough to find the film on YouTube and since that viewing TCM actually aired it a couple of times (Shout Factory released the film May 21st, 2013 on Blu-ray) and upon my repeated viewings I really began to love the movie and despite the flaws it’s become one of my favorites. Like I said when I first saw it I was expecting a slasher flick since most reviews made it sound like that and with comparisons to Friday the 13th Part 2 the film was different than expected. When The Town That Dreaded Sundown was released the slasher film was still in the early stages and who knows had this come out after Halloween perhaps it would have played up more to the slasher conventions.
The screenplay by Earl E. Smith mixes crime/drama with slasher elements and even adds some comedy and the mixture doesn’t always work and does create some problems as the movie never really has a clear direction. The victims are rather faceless and only appear right before they are attacked and the investigator’s working the case also lack depth, but due to the type of movie this is none of this really hurts it at all. This is the sort of film that doesn’t solely rely on characters so the lack of depth in no way hurts the film. Unlike some movies based off unsolved events, Smith doesn’t add on a Hollywood ending. There are no suspects in the script and unlike some movies that need a happy ending the killer is never caught, which really works well in the movies favor that it stuck to the true story in that aspect. Overall the screenplay works well, but had the movie gone in one direction it might have been better served as at times as I stated the movie is unclear on if it wants to be a crime/drama or slasher flick. Don’t watch this movie to get the facts on the case as in many areas it does stray from the true story, but retains enough of the true story to give you a basic idea of what happened, but the script does take many liberties with the actual events.
Director Charles B. Pierce delivers a solid and chilling flick, but it can be a little sluggish in the pacing, but I was never bored. In fairness due to the screenplay not really having a clear direction there is only so much Pierce can do at times. Since the film is part horror and crime/drama with comedy mixed in these aspects of the film can take away from each other. Despite some sluggish pacing in spots Pierce however is always able to hold my attention. The scenes with the Phantom Killer (Davis) are actually highly suspenseful and downright chilling at times. Charles Pierce does a truly great job with these scenes as I personally found them to be high on suspense and quite terrifying and while the set ups might be simple they are quite effective and in these scenes you can clearly see the influence on Friday the 13th Part 2. Charles Pierce does set up a nice eerie tone early in the film however some of this can at times be lost due to the shift between crime/drama and horror. This may not be the perfectly directed movie and would have been better served going in one clear cut direction, but Charles Pierce does a nice job and again delivers some great chills when the Phantom killer attacks and this ends up being one of my favorite slasher flicks that isn’t really a slasher flick.
Bud Davis played the Phantom Killer and he’s downright chilling! The burlap sack over the head is really creepy and most people will associate that with Friday the 13th Part 2 since that is the more known flick even though this movie came first, but the sack over the head is really creepy and the movements by Davis are very scary and his eyes are chilling. Even though we never see his face the eyes are more than enough and really send chills through your spine. The general belief is anyone can play a masked killer and in many ways that’s true, but if you look at the Halloween or Friday the 13th films some actors were better than others so there is an art to it and Bud Davis is downright terrifying.
Overall The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a chilling movie that helped set the groundwork for the slasher flick and as I stated earlier in the review the only real problem is the mixture of crime/drama and slasher can lead to some pacing problems and the lack of direction can slightly hinder the movie, but again the attack scenes are very chilling and make up for any of the flaws. Also the narration during the movie by Vern Stierman also adds to the movie giving it a nice documentary type feel, which really helps elevate the stories and make the film even creepier.
Director Charles Pierce as a small role as Patrolman A.C. Benson and the best scene is when he agrees to be a decoy unknowing that he has to dress as a woman.
Actual articles on the real case