Director Charles B. Pierce followed up the success of his 1972 mockumentary, The Legend of Boggy Creek, with this memorable horror film entitled, The Town That Dreaded Sundown. It was one of the very first films of its kind, and proved to be a hit in the drive-in circuit when it was released in December of 1976.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown is loosely based on the true account of the Phantom Killer, a serial killer who brutally murdered five people in Texarkana in 1946. The Phantom Killer wore a white hood over his face, and would stalk young couples in parked cars late at night. In addition to this, he had a habit of breaking into people’s homes and terrorizing them. Aside from three survivors, the couples were killed – and the women were horrifically maimed, their bodies found with bite marks around their neck and breasts.
The film follows the search for the Phantom Killer that lasted from February to May, and was led by Deputy Norman Ramsey and the famed Captain J.D. Morales, played by Ben Johnson.
We are guided through The Town That Dreaded Sundown by way of a voice-over narration that reveals details about the case and introduces the Phantom Killer’s victims. The nighttime scenes in this film are absolutely terrifying. We watch as the Phantom Killer slowly tortures and murders his victims, taking perverse pleasure in each act of abhorrent violence. Charles B. Pierce effectively executes these scenes, building the suspense until it is nearly unbearable. He perfectly captures the paranoia and fear which gripped the residents of this otherwise harmless little town.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown has an unpolished look and feel that helps the film enormously. Granted, this is probably due to the restraints of the low budget, but Charles B. Pierce never attempts to gloss anything over. There is absolutely no pretension whatsoever in his method of filmmaking. Pierce even stars in a small supporting role as Patrolman A.C. “Sparkplug” Benson. He provides several moments of good-natured – if somewhat forced – comic relief throughout the film.
Many of the supporting actors in the film were locals from Texarkana, and this is perhaps the most obvious weakness in the film. Simply put, these people cannot act. Their stiff performances pull you out of the film. Added to that, the dialogue is pretty weak and doesn’t always ring true. Aside from these two major flaws, the film succeeds in doing exactly what it sets out to do, and that is to scare us to death.
For a long while, The Town That Dreaded Sundown was largely unavailable. However, The Shout Factory has given the film an excellent Blu-ray release that includes a DVD of the film. The Blu-ray transfer is incredible. The film looks better now than it ever did. Appropriate amounts of dirt and grain are present, but this does not distract from the otherwise perfect 1080p transfer. Audio comes in the form of a DTS-Mono track. Special features include an audio commentary featuring Justin Beahm of Halloweenmovies.com, as well as Jim Presley, a supposed expert on the Moonlight Murders case. We are also treated to three short documentaries, a still gallery, a trailer, and a feature length film entitled The Evictors, starring Michael Parks and Jessica Harper, also directed by Charles B. Pierce.
For serious fans of classic drive-in fare, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a must see, and would be a welcome addition to any collection. Buy it here.