The Town that Dreaded Sundown is a 1976 horror feature film directed by (and co-starring) Charles B. Pierce (The Legend of Boggy Creek).
The film is based on a series of actual murders attributed to a man dubbed locally as the Phantom Killer, who murdered five people between February and May 1946. The murders occurred in and around the city of Texarkana, which is on the border between Texas and Arkansas. Most of the murders occurred in rural parts of the Texarkana area in both states and in rural areas of Bowie County, Texas and Miller County, Arkansas. The Phantom Killer was never identified by law enforcement and therefore never apprehended.
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The film is presented like an episode of Unsolved Mysteries, with a narrator describing the actions as they are shown. Ben Johnson stars as the law-enforcement officer attempting to catch the killer. Dawn Wells (Mary Ann of Gilligan’s Island) appears as one of the victims and the ever-reliable Andrew Prine as Johnson’s deputy.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown was one of a raft of films in the 1970s and 1980s that purported to be based on true events to add extra zing to both the marketing of the film and a documentary feel, often with a dead-pan voice-over at the beginning and end of the film.
As with many of these films, the ‘truth’ on-screen should be taken with a reasonable amount of salt, though there was a serial killer in Texarkana in the 1940s, hooded, as in the film, who very unusually killed his victims with a shotgun. The real hook of both the real-life murders and the film is that rather like Jack the Ripper, although many names have been bandied around as likely suspects over the years, the killer was never knowingly caught.
The film is true to the 1940s period and the acting is well above average for a relatively low-budget outing; Prine had already made his name in the likes of Centerfold Girls and Barn of the Naked Dead whilst Johnson was instantly recognisable from countless cowboys flicks (and, oddly, no less than two killer bee movies).
Director Pierce also appears in a starring role, largely for comic relief, not unlike the slightly inappropriate slapstick cop capers in The Last House on the Left. This is slightly at odds with the sombre tone is the depiction of the masked killer murdering one of his victims with a knife attached to a trombone. You’ve read that sentence correctly.
The film’s influence can be seen in countless slasher films throughout the 1980s, especially Friday 13th Part 2 which features killer Jason Vorhees wearing an almost identical hood.
The film was released theatrically in the United States by American International Pictures (AIP) in December 1976. It received a VHS release on Warner Home Video in the 1980s and Good Times Video in 2001.
In 2014, a remake was released.
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES & MANIA