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.
Watch the trailer: