The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)
★★★ / ★★★★
The pseudo-documentary approach of “The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” written for the screen by Earl E. Smith and directed by Charles B. Pierce (who also co-stars as the dimwitted Patrolman A.C. “Sparkplug” Benson), works in this particular story because the killer is never identified or caught. The plot is loosely based on the Texarkana Moonlight Murders of 1946 and it makes for an interesting watch as a crime picture and a genre exercise: it establishes a convincing setting of a post-World War II border town living in every day terror and it is not constrained by the usual trappings of the modern slasher horror since it was made before the slasher sub-genre took off.
We are greeted with a creepy but matter-of-fact narration by Vern Stierman. It does not waste any time in establishing the stakes and convincing the viewers why this tale is worth telling. By showing us around the usual hangouts in Texarkana—bars, movie theaters, churches—and the people living in it, typical establishing shots usually treated as throwaways in modern horror stories, it creates a genuine aura of foreboding. If the murders can happen in this town with these regular Americans, it can just as well happen to you and me.
We follow Deputy Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine) and Captain J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson), a local cop and a Texas Ranger, visit crime scenes and gather clues as the strong, tall, and white-masked Phantom Killer (Bud Davis) slaughters unsuspecting couples in their vehicles every twenty-one days. Prine and Johnson share a curious chemistry, perhaps because they play their characters’ personalities as opposites or that it is entirely apparent they are performers in a horror movie more than capable of delivering subtlety, although the material does not bother to delve deeply into their differing approaches when it comes to police work. They are shown as capable and smart, so we recognize why they are the best hands and minds to try to apprehend the killer. There are hints of a solid procedural here.
The killings are not shown in a cinematic way—which I felt to be the correct approach. They are messy, ugly, and sad. There is not one effective jump scare. Instead, it tasks us to wallow in the violence and consider the torment the victims are going through. Therein lies its horror. Particularly memorable is the third couple, a pair of musicians, who are brutalized in such an unblinking fashion, especially the woman (Cindy Butler), that I caught my eyes moving away from the screen in order to take a breath. Our empathy is always with the victim, never the killer. And so when the scene reaches the inevitable climax, the defeat is all the more impactful. This is when The Phantom Killer is at his most confident and… creative. We desperately wish for him to make a mistake so that Ramsey and Morales could get closer to his tracks.
Although peppered with comic moments (all scenes involving Sparkplug being slow but quite earnest to execute his assignments the best he can), “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” is not created to make the audience feel good—at least not in a traditional sense. It is meant to horrify and remind that taking another person’s life is quite the chore, maybe even requiring discipline. For instance, how is it possible that The Phantom Killer was so successful in not leaving meaningful evidence when every single crime scene shows great struggle? Perhaps the killer is ahead of his time.