The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976) is based on a series of real murderers by a man dubbed the Phantom Killer who went on a rampage in the town of Texarkana (a city shared by Texas and Arkansas, hence the name) in 1946. The killer was never caught, though there are varying theories about who was behind the murders. So you can definitely see why this would have fascinated director Charles B. Pierce. There’s something about the mysterious killer with vague motivations that makes for great horror. It gives the legend an almost demonic strength. It places it in the realm of mythology. Which begs the question: was there really any motivation at all? Violence is sometimes the most frightening when it’s an end in itself.
Pierce was often fascinated by real-life mysteries, basing several of his movies on them. His debut film, The Legend of Boggy Creek, released to drive-ins as a double feature with Last House on the Left in 1972, examined the legends of a bigfoot-like creature in Fouke, Arkansas, near Texarkana. A faux-documentary, it features narration by Vern Stierman, who also provided narration for The Town that Dreaded Sundown. Unlike Boggy Creek, however, Sundown doesn’t pretend to be a documentary, so the narration feels quite out of place. Actually, a lot seems out of place in this movie.
While the performances in Sundown are better than the (mostly) complete amateurs Pierce used in Boggy Creek, they’re still not incredible, though it’s all serviceable enough for low-budget horror. It reminded me at times of watching an extended episode of “Unsolved Mysteries.” God, who could forget those wonderfully terrible re-enactments? The spooky voice-over certainly lends credence to this comparison. Which actually makes me wonder if perhaps The Town that Dreaded Sundown was a direct influence on the show. Probably not, but it’s fun to think about these things. Actually, there is one standout actor: Ben Johnson (The Last Picture Show and a ton of Westerns). He plays the cantankerous J.D. Morales, nicknamed the Lone Wolf, based on an actual Texas Ranger who worked on the case and actually killed a dozen people. Also notable is an appearance by Dawn Wells, famous for playing Mary Ann on “Gilligan’s Island.”
Except for the last killing, the murders all take place at a local “lovers lane.” As you might expect, the attacks are the most affecting parts of the film. There’s something so jarring about young and more-or-less innocent necking interrupted by over-the-top violence from a man with a goddamn potato sack over his head, especially during such a nostalgia-laden period like the the end of World War II. Though he never sexually assaults any of his victims, there is definitely a sexual component to his murders. He only attacks couples. Why? We never find out, and it’s just as well, I suppose.
The concept is quite good, but The Town that Dreaded Sundown is often marred by stretches of goofy comedy that are interspersed throughout the film. Pierce himself plays the patrolman A.C. Benson, who exists solely as good ol’ boy comic relief. The humor certainly undercuts the fright, but, I have to admit, it makes the movie seem more surreal as a whole, which makes it even more fascinating for a B-movie weirdo like myself. There are times where the film has the potential to be a really dark grindhouse kind of flick, especially when the killer is just murdering people in the middle of nowhere and there’s no music or dialogue accompanying the violence. This doesn’t happen often, though. The music comes back soon enough, killing the mood, so to speak. Because of this, the movie undercuts its own potential for real terror. And I think the subject deserved a more serious treatment. Real people died, after all, and 1976 was only thirty years removed from the actual incidents. It would have been the respectful thing to do. If not, well, just fictionalize things a little more, like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which was kinda-sorta, but not really based on the Ed Gein murders.
As it stands, there’s a lot of blending of fantasy and reality in The Town that Dreaded Sundown, and the boundaries only get murkier in the 2014 remake / sequel of the same name directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. It’s often called a meta-sequel, and sure, why not, that’s as good a definition as any. After all, in the reality of this movie, the original film exists. And the real murders are acknowledged, too. So the movie’s new killer is influenced by both the original film and the real-life incidents that inspired it. At the same time, the killings are an almost beat-for-beat recreation of those that took place in the original movie. (Except for a particularly gruesome scene in which the mysterious murderer breaks a hotel window with a decapitated head. Yikes.) Adding to the, uh, meta-ness of the piece is that there’s a Texas Ranger who nicknames himself the Lone Wolf, though he has no idea that there’s a similar character in the 1976 film. Until he watches the movie, of course.
Well, is that meta enough for you?
Adding to the weirdness, the movie is supposed to take place within the last decade, and yet the characters dress straight out of the 70’s and have cars to match. There are only a few indications that the movie takes place in the near-past, most prominently the use of cellphones and laptops. And that’s about it. The movie is pretty much lost in time.
This version of Sundown is a bit gorier, as you might expect. This is the 21st Century, after all, and subtlety is dead. The practical effects are damn good, though. There’s some CGI blood splatter that verges on silly, but it’s not too distracting.
The writing, by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, isn’t bad at all, despite the need to constantly appear clever while winking at the audience. The tone is actually consistent and it takes its subject more or less seriously, though I wonder what Charles Pierce’s son, who’s still alive, thought about his comic portrayal as an eccentric who lives on houseboat completely surrounded by land, decorated almost entirely with memorabilia from the original Town that Dreaded Sundown. The only glaring flaw, really, is that the film completely falls apart at the end. Not only do you see the killer’s identity coming from about seven miles away, but it’s one of those final confrontations where the bad guy explains his motivations in detail in a long-winded speech, reasoning that his victim will be dead soon enough anyway. This is silly. Horror filmmakers, stop doing this. Just stop.
The odd thing about both of these movies is that they recognize that their source is a string of actual murders that happened to real people, but they don’t seem to care a whole lot, making caricatures of the victims by using their stories as a vehicle for horror movie exploitation. Without the baggage of being based on a true story, these movies would be wonderful. But the context leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. I think there’s a perfect version of this story waiting to be made, a third Town that will take the victims’ stories completely seriously. As much as I enjoyed both versions of The Town That Dreaded Sundown, I’ll be waiting for that third movie.