Serial killers are something I’ve always been fascinated and frightened by. I remember hearing about the nightstalker killings in California when I was younger, and even though I lived in Michigan, it seemed like it was possible for Richard Ramirez to make his way to my neighborhood somehow and take out me and my family. In 1946, the town of Texarkana, Arkansas was under that same type of terror from a serial killer known as “The Phantom Killer“, and 1976 flick “The Town that Dreaded Sundown” is the retelling of that story.
The first attack of the phantom was on March 3rd, and a couple of young people were out on a “lover’s lane” doing what lovers do, tussling in the front seat, when out of nowhere a hooded man dragged them out of the car and beat them nearly to death. The police were clueless as to the motive, and neither victim could give them a description of the attacker besides the fact that he was extremely strong. 3 weeks passed, and exactly 21 days later, the masked man attacked again, this time shooting his victims to death. While on patrol, Deputy Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine) heard the shots and nearly caught up to the phantom before he sped away in his car. That’s when Captain J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson) is called in.
Captain Morales is the most highly decorated Texas Ranger, and he’s also known as “The Wolf”. Morales is a by the books officer and he doesn’t want any leaks getting out to the media or to concerned citizens, because he knows that the phantom can be anywhere, or anyone. After 21 more days pass, the police discover another murder, this time in one of the city parks, and they know that the phantom is playing a game with them, daring them to catch him. Morales and Ramsey have acted on many leads, and tips from the public, but have come up with their hands empty. When the phantom commits his next murder and it breaks his pattern – this time attacking a family in their home – the police know that this case has evolved and the phantom has become more brazen.
The Town that Dreaded Sundown is a pretty well cast movie. While you might not recognize the names of the actors, when you see them you say to yourself “Oh, that guy’s in this too?” Dawn Wells (you might remember her as Mary Anne from Gilligan’s Island) also has a small part playing one of the victims who got away, even after being shot in the face and head. I was pretty impressed at how authentic everything looked. At no point was I watching this and caught myself thinking that this didn’t happen in the late 40’s, from the cars to the clothes to even the signs in the police station and other locations. The film is also narrated, documentary style, which I thought helped move the pacing along quickly and didn’t drag out any extra scenes unnecessarily.
The phantom character itself is done well. The only markings they emphasize are the shoes and the mask itself. In some scenes when they want to emphasize that the killer can be anyone, they show a person wearing the same ragged boots that the phantom wears. The mask is essentially a white bag with a couple eye holes cut out of it, which must have been a direct inspiration for Friday the 13th part II’s mask, and what I lovingly refer to as “Potato Sack Jason”, which was made 5 years after this film. Every time the phantom appears in a scene, he conveys a feeling of terror without being unbelievable. Also, he uses some unconventional killing methods which I found a little humorous. For example, one of his victims has a trombone in the car, and he ends up tying or taping a knife to the end of the slide, and pretends like he’s playing it as he stabs them to death. Now that’s using your noggin!
The actual film is dark at times, so it makes it hard to see some of the action on screen. It would have been a lot more watchable if you could tell what was going on a little more easily. The film does a good job of mixing suspense, horror and even comedic elements really nicely. The Town that Dreaded Sundown surprised me with how enjoyable it was, and that’s why I’m giving it 3.5 potato sacks out of 5.
The Town that Dreaded Sundown is Available on VHS from Amazon.com