By 1946 World War II had ended and joy and prosperity returned to the United States. However, a dark cloud hung over Texarkana (a city that resides in both Arkansas and Texas) during the spring of that year as a masked murderer known as the Phantom Killer terrorized the inhabitants of the town, killing five of them and severely wounding three others. These series of murders became known as the Texarkana Moonlight Murders because most of them occurred late at night. The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) is an unsettling dramatization of the killer’s reign of terror and the authorities’ attempts to apprehend him. It was written in just-the-facts fashion by Earl E. Smith and directed with gritty, lo-fi style by Charles B. Pierce, both of whom had worked together previously on the cult film The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972).
Early on, Pierce presents an idyllic small town full of promise and hope as we see a couple getting married, people buying new cars and a house being built. This is shattered on March 3 when a young couple – Sammy Fuller (Mike Hackworth) and Linda Mae Jenkins (Christine Ellsworth) – drive out into a wooded area known as Lover’s Lane at night. A man wearing a hood over his face soon attacks them. What is so striking about this scene is the lack of music. All we hear is the heavy breathing of the killer and the chilling screams of Jenkins who, amazingly, survives the attack as does Fuller. She manages to crawl her way to the road and is found the next day. While there is no blood or gore, the attack is brutally depicted with quick, jarring edits and no frills camerawork that recalls The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). And like that film the violence in The Town That Dreaded Sundown is not as graphic as we think it is – there is only the suggestion of it but our mind fills in the rest.
Buddy Turner (Rick Hildreth) and Emma Lou Cook (Misty West) are the next victims on March 24. We don’t see the attack, just hear gunshots as Deputy Sheriff Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine) investigates, having decided to patrol Lover’s Lane. He finds the couple’s car and hears more shots off in the distance. Again, no music is used so that all we hear is the sound of the rain and the gunshots. When music is used it is done so sparingly.
A wave of fear envelopes the town with gun sales skyrocketing and locksmiths kept very busy. Soon, famous Texas Ranger Captain J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson) is called in and he takes over the investigation. Ben Johnson who brings all kinds of gravitas to the role-plays him with rock solid reliability. He also brings his trademark charismatic, good ol’ boy charm, which plays well off of Andrew Prine’s more laconic approach. Their eventual resignation to the fact that they’ll probably never catch the killer is discouraging but has a ring of honesty to it.
Once Morales arrives on the scene, the film takes on the feel of a police procedural as he and Ramsey visit crime scenes, question witnesses and search for clues. April 14 marks the next attack again at Lover’s Lane late at night. A couple is terrorized by the Phantom Killer who ends up stalking Peggy Loomis (Cindy Butler) through the woods. This is the most brutal and ferocious of all the killer’s attacks as we see him tie her to a tree and then repeatedly stab her with a knife tied to a trombone. There are no shots of blood, just the sounds of the knife stabbing her and her anguished moans of pain. We also see close-up shots of the killer’s eyes juxtaposed with Loomis’ terrified face, which are almost too much to bear. The next and final attack occurs in May at a couple’s home as the killer shoots the husband through a window and then smashes through a screen door to get at the wife (Dawn Wells). The striking point-of-view shots used during this sequence anticipate John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) by a couple of years.
If there is one glaring misstep in The Town That Dreaded Sundown, it is the odd bit of casting of Pierce as Morales’ inept driver and comic relief, complete with his own whimsical theme music. I imagine the director felt that the presence of this character would offer moments of much-needed levity to this grim story. Instead, it comes across as an unnecessarily jarring change in tone. Fortunately, the character is used sparingly and doesn’t distract too much from this otherwise excellent film.
Pierce and Smith present the events in the traditional, matter-of-fact style of a docudrama complete with an omniscient narrator, which only adds to the authenticity and was also used in contemporary television shows like In Search Of and later Unsolved Mysteries. Pierce does occasionally enhance his direction with stylistic flourishes like the use of slow motion during a car chase, which even includes spectacular crash. Another aspect that gives the film a real quality is the casting of largely amateur or non-actors. Aside from Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine and Dawn Wells, the cast consists of unknowns and so we have no preconceived notions of these people to distract us. The filmmakers use the rural locations very effectively. The lush, green countryside seen during the day conveys the arrival of carefree summer days with kids playing at the local watering hole, which is in turn juxtaposed with the creepiness of the forest on a late, rainy night.
Director Charles Pierce grew up in the area where many of the actual murders occurred. He remembered being quite frightened by the news stories when he was a youth. His intimate knowledge of the area and living through the actual events certainly gives The Town That Dreaded Sundown an authenticity that it wouldn’t otherwise have. When the film was released, Pierce was criticized for the graphic depiction of violence, in particular the trombone murder scene (the victim was played by his wife at the time) but he felt that this was necessary because the actual killing was brutal and he didn’t want to water it down. During the scenes with the killer Pierce created a suspenseful mood by filming with only essential cast and crew members. He made sure that they did not talk to each other while filming occurred and it certainly translates on-screen with incredibly tense scenes that are almost uncomfortable to watch.
This little-known film has a significant legacy with the look of the killer being adopted by Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981), referenced in Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), and the matter-of-fact killings of couples along with the hooded murderer were also referenced in David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007). Perhaps the most chilling aspect of the film, and of the actual events, is that the killer was never caught or identified. What happened? Did he perhaps get convicted of another crime? Did he move on to another town or state or did he go back to living a normal life in Texarkana? We will probably never know and it is these questions that nag at your brain long after The Town That Dreaded Sundown is over.
Many thanks to Christian over at the Technicolor Dreams 70 blog for turning me onto this film.