Tag Archives: 1970s horror

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

The Town that Dreaded Sundown 1976
The Town that Dreaded Sundown

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 24 August 2015

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Charles B. Pierce

Writer: Earl E. Smith

Cast: Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Dawn Wells

USA 1976

90 mins

Based on true events, The Town That Dreaded Sundown details the crimes committed by the so called ‘Phantom Killer’ or ‘Phantom Slayer’ in Arkansas in 1946, the attempts by the police, and Texas Ranger ‘Lone Wolf’ Morales (Ben Johnson) to catch him, and the panic and fear that spread throughout the community when the sun went down. In all, eight people were attacked, and five killed; the victims were initially courting couples in parked cars, but the last attack involved a gun assault on a farmhouse. The killer was never caught, and the film implies that he still walks the Arkansas streets thirty years later.

Various commentators, talking about Charles B. Pierce’s 1976 film, casually drop the term ‘cult classic’, including a couple on the disc extras included here. I’m not so sure. It’s definitely got a certain trash-culture cachet, as a proto-slasher film that introduced many of the elements that would become formula after Halloween and Friday the 13th hit big a couple of years later. It clearly had a certain resonance with the drive-in crowd; the TV ads and radio spots for the film seem to have scarred a generation, and clearly somebody thought that there was enough audience recognition out there to greenlight the recent remake. But I suspect that the film’s reputation was greatly improved by its absence. It has only recently popped up on DVD, and seems to have survived into the modern age through the occasional late-night TV screening, or viewings of much traded and well-worn VHS tapes. It became known as the film with the hooded, silent murderer, anticipating Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers; the film where a girl gets weirdly murdered via a knife taped to a trombone slide; the film where Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island (Dawn Wells) gets shot in the face.

In actuality? It’s… it’s a bit of a mixed bag to be honest. Pierce worked hard to try to give a sense of time and place, but creating a period film on an independent budget was clearly a stretch, and the production values suffer accordingly, while the music is overly demonstrative and, frankly, irritating. There’s a folksy voiceover track to contend with, and some ill-fitting comic relief from the ‘Deputy Sparkplug’ character played by Pierce himself. One gets the impression that it was made on the cheap and on the fly, with variable results. Much of the filmmaking is perfunctory, but occasional sequences, like the final attack on the farmhouse, are brutally effective and assembled with some skill. The facts of the case are enough to maintain your interest, and the film delivers its version of events with a certain nuts–and-bolts efficiency, but the facts of the actual case, of course, leave the film with no ending. The ‘Phantom Slayer’ was never caught, and the final reel that the film offers, with a shootout and a swampy disappearance (apparently hastily written during the shoot by Andrew Prine, who plays Deputy Norman Ramsey), feels like a bit of a let-down. As a whole the movie is… alright. I’m glad I finally caught up with it, and can tick it off a mental list. But I don’t feel any great urge to see it again.

If Prine is to be believed, the shoot was a pretty boozy, ramshackle, good-natured affair. Pierce was clearly a character, a former children’s TV entertainer turned independent filmmaker, who seemed to get his motion pictures made through sheer force of personality. Arkansas based, he was a populist who clearly knew his audience and gave them what they wanted. I remember his endearingly shonky The Legend of Boggy Creek from its various screenings on BBC2 when I was a kid. He went on to write Sudden Impact for Clint Eastwood. I tend to think a documentary about his life would be more interesting than any of his actual films, Sundown included. ‘Cult classic’ or not.

Read our review of the 2014 sequel to The Town that Dreaded Sundown here.

Mark Stafford

Watch the trailer:

The Town That Dreaded Sundown

The Town that Dreaded Sundown
The Town that Dreaded Sundown

Format: Cinema

Release date: 17 April 2015

DVD release date: 17 August 2015

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Writer: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa

Cast: Addison Timlin, Veronica Cartwright, Anthony Anderson, Gary Cole, Ed Lauter

USA 2014

86 mins

Charles B. Pierce‘s The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) was an independent exploitation film that purported to tell the story of the true crime case of ‘the Phantom Killer’, who committed a brutal series of murders in the town of Texarkana, on the border between Texas and Arkansas, in 1946. The film is mainly discussed today as a proto-stalk-and-slash movie, one of those films, like Bob Clark‘s Black Christmas (1974), that came within a gnat’s hair of the winning formula of Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), but not quite… In the case of Sundown, Pierce gave us a masked killer and a body count structure, with gruesome deaths by gun, knife, and, notoriously, trombone slide, but couldn’t supply the payback climax or the final girl, for the good reason that the actual phantom killer was never caught, he simply stopped, leaving fear and mystery behind him.

If Pierce‘s film could be said to have been ahead of the pack, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon‘s new version would appear to be tardy to the party, arriving long after every other slasher movie of the 70s has been remade, to varying degrees of worthlessness. This time, it’s Halloween 2008, in Texarkana and Jami (Addison Timlin) feels uncomfortable at a pop up drive-in screening of… The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Her date gallantly drives them off to ‘park’, but they are attacked by a hooded, gun-toting maniac, a copycat phantom who only lets her live to send a message and tell the world that he’s back. Thereafter other murders occur, following the pattern laid down in ’46 (or the movie version thereof), the town grows more and more paranoid and hysterical, the Texas Rangers are called in, and Jami begins her own investigation, alongside local archive nerd Nick (Travis Trope), convinced the murders of ’46 hold the key to the killings around her…

Sundown ’14 is, for most of its running time, considerably more fun than it should be. A fizzy, unhealthy concoction brought to us by the people behind Glee, American Horror Story, Sinister and the Paranormal Activity franchise. It looks handsome, and as with all the grindhouse remakes, clearly has fancier technical resources to hand than its progenitor. It moves at a fair clip, the small town weirdness is well realised, camerawork and editing are lively and inventive, and it always helps to have the likes of Gary Cole and Veronica Cartwright filling out your cast. Moreover the victims are actually sympathetic characters for a change, rather than the parade of obnoxious ‘types’ that normally populate this branch of cinema these days, neatly established in swift tabloid strokes, and including a rather sweet, nervous, first-time gay couple.

It’s made texturally and textually more interesting by the presence of the ’76 film effectively haunting this one. It pops up, looking faded, bleached out, and rather shonky, on screen after screen, and almost subliminal blips of it are inserted into the edit. Further, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s script has all kinds of meta-games to play: we have Pierce’s son as a character, and even see the 70s film crew in one travelling shot. Most amusingly we have Anthony Anderson as ‘Lone Wolf’ the Texas Ranger realising, upon viewing Sundown for the first time, that he has parroted the dialogue of Ben Johnson, who played the character in the original. There is a theme running of how real life gets turned, over time, into stories, the past never lets go, and of how the Phantom Killer becomes the Boogey Man.


All good nasty fun, so it’s a pity that the makers turned for the finale to the Kevin Williamson Scream sequel model of ‘whodunnit’ reveal and final girl payback. For one thing, the ‘whodunnit’ reveal at the climax of a slasher movie always felt surplus to requirements to me, like being tasked with doing a crossword puzzle at the end of a rollercoaster ride. All the running and screaming suddenly gives way to discussions of identity and motivation that seem absurdly Scooby Doo. For another, the climax plonks the remake firmly into a run-of-the-mill stalk-and-slash model when, for a while there, it seemed smarter than that. So, entertaining enough, but a little disheartening. The modern drive-in won’t allow for ambiguity, and it’s not over until somebody gets ‘empowered’. Ah, for the 70s, where violence was always degrading…

Mark Stafford

Watch the trailer: