Masked killers are always scary, but the words “based on a true story” seem to magnify the effect. From The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to The Strangers, the claim that a horror movie is based on actual events gives it an air of authenticity that can be terrifying. In 1976, during the infancy of the true crime horror phase, the gimmick was exploited by a classic film called The Town that Dreaded Sundown.
Taking place in Texarkana, Texas, The Town that Dreaded Sundown begins with a lengthy bit of exposition that paints an idyllic picture of the town…until March of 1946, when Texarkana was subjected to a reign of terror that was so severe, thirty years later, people were still speaking of it with fear in their hearts. Assuring the viewer that the story is true and that “only the names have been changed,” the film goes on to show a couple named Sammy Fuller (Revenge of Bigfoot’s Mike Hackworth) and Linda Mae Jenkins (Christine Ellsworth from The Savage Bees) parked out at a lovers’ lane. Suddenly, the couple is surprised as a hooded man disables their engine. The man kills Sammy and maims Linda Mae. When she is found and taken to a hospital, her story inspires panic in the town. When another pair of lovers is attacked and murdered, Police Chief Sullivan (Jim Citty in his only movie credit) and Deputy Ramsey (Grizzly’s Andrew Prine) realize that they are in over their heads; they call in a famous Texas Ranger named Captain Morales (Ben Johnson from Terror Train) for help. Morales, Ramsey and the rest of the police force are in a race against time to catch the killer who is only known as “The Phantom” before he strikes again.
The Town that Dreaded Sundown was written by Earl E. Smith and directed by Charles B. Pierce, the same pair who wrote and directed The Legend of Boggy Creek a few years earlier. The story was based on a real-life murder case about a masked killer in Texarkana, but was highly dramatized and sensationalized for the screen. Instead of a faux-documentary type of film, like The Legend of Boggy Creek, Smith and Pierce decided to opt for more of a docu-drama feel, resulting in a film that looks much like a long “Unsolved Mysteries” re-enactment. Except, The Town that Dreaded Sundown is much scarier than any episode of “Unsolved Mysteries.”
The iconic image that most people associate with The Town that Dreaded Sundown is that of the Phantom Killer: a big, brawny guy with a hood over his head and two homemade eye holes. Looking like he’s part ghost and part KKK member, it’s a frightening image, and the prototype for several cinematic masked killers that came after him, from the pre-hockey mask Jason in Friday the 13th Part 2 to the male intruder in The Strangers. As simple of a look as it is, the Phantom Killer’s appearance in The Town that Dreaded Sundown is both horrifying and unforgettable.
With such a scary killer on the loose, The Town that Dreaded Sundown balances out the fear with more than its share of comic relief, most of it coming from the director himself, Charles B. Pierce in the role of Policeman “Sparkplug” Benson. Sparkplug is as incompetent as Barney Fife or the Keystone Cops, and the other officers play straight man to his oddball humor. He drives recklessly with his superiors in the car, has trouble understanding simple concepts, and even volunteers for a sting operation where he is forced to dress as a woman. Charles B. Pierce may not go down in history as a premier director, but he’ll always be the village idiot in The Town that Dreaded Sundown.
As silly as he is, Sparkplug is not the only source of comedy in the film. The Phantom Killer gets into it in typical slasher style at one point, playing with his victim by stabbing her in the back with her own trombone as he pretends to play the instrument. The scene is reminiscent of killers like Leatherface or Jason Voorhees who seem to have a little fun with their victims before finishing them off. Now, the Phantom Killer is no Freddy Krueger, but he knows how to toy with his prey.
Another little slice of pop culture that is included with The Town that Dreaded Sundown is the fact that it features Dawn Wells, better known as Mary Ann from “Gilligan’s Island.” Wells plays one of the Phantom Killer’s final victims, and is the focal point of one of the more intense scenes in the film. While she is not exactly a scream queen, the role is a far cry from that of Mary Ann, and she makes for a decent Final Girl. Anyone who has ever wanted to see Mary Ann get shot in the face, well…The Town that Dreaded Sundown may just fit the bill.
Although the story behind The Town that Dreaded Sundown is true, the filmmakers took liberties with the details. There is one thing that they didn’t exaggerate, however; like Jack the Ripper and The Zodiac Killer, The Phantom Killer was never caught. That part is absolutely true. Sleep tight.