THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (1976)
Charles B. Pierce
Ben Johnson – Captain J.D. Morales
Andrew Prine – Deputy Norman Ramsey
Dawn Wells – Helen Reed
Jimmy Clem – Sgt. Mal Griffin
Jim Citty – Police Chief R.J. Sullivan
Charles B. Pierce – Patrolman A.C. Benson
Robert Aquino – Sheriff Barker
Genre – Horror/Slasher
Running Time – 86 Minutes
On March 3rd, 1946, a man wearing a sack over his head violently assaults two lovebirds in their car in a small town called Texarkana in the state of Arkansas. The police force, including Deputy Ramsey (Andrew Prine), Police Chief Sullivan (Jim Citty), and Sheriff Barker (Robert Aquino), try to calm down the townspeople by appointing curfews after sundown. However, any clues leading to this assailant don’t seem to exist, frustrating the entire town.
Several weeks later, Deputy Ramsey finds an abandoned car, as well as another attacked couple who were shot to death. The killer is now called “The Phantom Killer”, since no one has seen him or can figure out what kind of motive he has with these crimes. The state hires Texas Ranger Captain Morales (Ben Johnson) to help out with the case, hoping his expertise will help in capturing this very dangerous man.
- The Phantom Killer. Loosely based on true events, THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is considered one of the earliest slasher films in the horror genre. It’s, without a doubt, due to the presentation and the violent actions of The Phantom Killer.
Let’s begin with the look of this dude: He wears casual clothes, plus a sack over his head to cover his face. While some may think the sack may look silly and plain, I think it looks pretty damn creepy. I mean, a blank sack with just two peepholes for eyes staring at you? I’d be running away in a flash from this guy! I also love how the Phantom Killer breathes underneath it, almost as if he’s huffing and puffing with anger and frustration. This dude is pretty intimidating. And yes, it’s very obvious that the Phantom Killer was the basis for the look of a famous horror icon later on. Without this character, who knows what Jason Voorhees would have looked like in FRIDAY THE 13TH: PART II.
I also liked The Phantom Killer’s actions when it came to stalking and taking out his victims. I think it’s because you know he’s just a normal human being with a few screws loose, instead of some supernatural being who can’t be stopped or killed. He hides behind trees and bushes in quiet areas, waiting for couples to arrive. He enjoys destroying cars just to get his target. He loves to bash people’s brains in. He enjoys tying women face-first around trees. He has a trusty revolver to shoot victims. And in one of the more memorable moments, he ties a knife to a trombone and stabs a female victim while attempting to play the instrument. That not only takes talent, but that also shows a ton of personality. And the killer never says a word in the film at all.
I think the best part about the Phantom Killer is that he’s just a normal [well, less sane than others] man who easily blends into the town. While he does creep out certain women on occasion out of costume, no one seems to suspect that this man could be a killer. One of my favorite moments in the film is when the police are discussing the Phantom Killer in a restaurant and how they suspect he’s a regular citizen during the day, able to conceal his identity by looking and behaving normal. Then the camera pans, revealing a familiar pair of shoes and slacks, implying that the killer was inside with the police listening to their conversation. It’s seriously creepy and frightening to know that serial killers are walking and doing normal things in our neighborhood without us suspecting a thing. And the fact that The Phantom Killer was never caught makes the story even scarier. THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN succeeds with its mysterious and creepy antagonist big time.
- The docu-drama style of storytelling. I really enjoyed the way the story for THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN was told. It felt like an extended Unsolved Mysteries episode, in which a narrator discusses the facts of the case in order – giving the audience insight on the situation and the backstories on all the players in the story so we can identify with them better. It can a bit distracting for some, as they would prefer to just let the story unfold naturally without any form of voiceover leading us through the attacks. But I enjoyed it and it reminded me of one of those shows on the Investigation Discovery channel – and I’m a fan of those shows.
- The sense of dread. While Charles B. Pierce screws it up somewhat with his attempts of levity that don’t work at all, THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is pretty much a bleak story without any form of an uplifting ending. In fact, there’s no real hope in the film, except for a sequence during the final act where the police are closing in on The Phantom Killer in a tense shootout. But the fact that he’s never caught, and the police being pretty much clueless in who he really is and how to protect their citizens, makes THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN a pretty dark film.
And anytime the film plays it straight and serious, the film really works on all cylinders. The stalking scenes are tense. The shots of the killer’s feet and pants really build on this mystery. The way the killer breathes while he’s on the hunt is intimidating and quite powerful. When it clicks, it clicks. It’s just unfortunate that the movie doesn’t allow that to completely happen from beginning to end.
- The cast. There are no real standouts in terms of acting, but I do enjoy the cast in this film. The great Ben Johnson is very good as Captain Morales. He comes across as very tough, intelligent, and attempts to make the “funny” moments somewhat tolerable. I think a lot of critics felt that this kind of film was beneath Johnson [since he was an Academy Award winner a few years before the release of this film], but I think his presence makes THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN more credible than it already is.
The supporting players are pretty good as well. Andrew Prine is good as Deputy Ramsey, really providing a charismatic performance. He also makes his character deeper than the script allows. Dawn Wells, best known as Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island, is probably the best victim of The Phantom Killer. Her fear translates very well and she would have made a decent Scream Queen if her character had gone in that direction. And while I thought his character was ridiculously silly, Charles B. Pierce at least makes the most of playing “Spark Plug” Benson. I just wish he didn’t put himself in the film as much as he did.
And special mention goes to stuntman Bud Davis for his creepy portrayal as The Phantom Killer. Through the use of body language and the telling in his eyes, the villain of the film is extremely memorable through his menace and craziness. Whoever cast this man deserves huge kudos.
- The “funny” sections. Yeah, THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN definitely needed slapstick comedy and a bumbling cop nicknamed “Spark Plug”. Every slasher film needs Gomer Pyle type comedy to really emphasize the scare factor!
…Really? Charles B. Pierce thought physical comedy was a great addition to a serious story?
Here I am, sitting on my couch watching this film, getting really caught up in all the stalking and serious stuff. Then all of a sudden, I get a character who acts so much like an idiot that it affects the other characters around him. “Spark Plug” does not belong in a film like this. I don’t want to see him being a driver because he’s a terrible driver. BECAUSE TERRIBLE DRIVERS ARE HILARIOUS, GET IT?? I don’t want to see him acting as bait by dressing up as an ugly woman. BECAUSE MEN DRESSED IN DRAG ARE FUNNY, GET IT??? There’s just too much of this guy and it felt I was watching a Dukes of Hazzard episode within a horror film. Sure, comedy can definitely work in a horror film, as it allows the audience to breathe a bit. But not when it ruins the flow and takes me out of what the film is really trying to tell.
In a lot of ways, it reminded me of the original 1972 THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. You had so much violence, grit, and exploitation that made the film excelled. Then all of a sudden, you had a duo of bumbling cops ruining everything by trying to be funny. It just ruined the film for me. Thankfully, the remake fixed that. But until a more serious remake is released, we have to settle with this mish-mash of styles that don’t go together at all. I felt like I was watching two movies – a great horror film and a lousy comedy. It’s a shame Pierce went this route because he really had something going until he put himself in the film to be “funny. It obviously didn’t work.
THINGS I’VE LEARNED WHILE BRUSHING UP ON MY TROMBONE SKILLS
- The Phantom Killer cut some car wires so a couple of lovebirds couldn’t escape his attempted murder spree. Although he sucks as a mechanic, he gets a AAA for effort.
- A doctor confirmed that a female victim had her breasts bitten and chewed by The Phantom Killer. It’s obvious he’s a baby and he just started teething. Wait until those Terrible Twos!
- One of the victims was found dead, hugging a tree. It’s obvious the killer hates hippies some 20 years before it became cool to do so.
- Back in 1946, a haircut cost 40 cents. The gum that got caught in my hair that’ll make me get a haircut doesn’t even cost 40 cents. Damn economy…
- The Phantom Killer seemed obsessed with a playing a certain instrument for a female victim, using it to stab her with a knife attached to it. I guess he just wanted to slide his trombone in her brass section.
- The Phantom Killer targeted Dawn Wells, shooting her multiple times inside her home. It’s obvious the killer is Gilligan, still pissed she chose the Professor over him during that three hour tour.
THE FINAL HOWL
THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is a cult classic when it comes to the slasher sub-genre. It inspired other films – more popular films – that were released a few years after it. It also has a great villain, a bleak atmosphere, great serious moments, and a cast who takes the story seriously and makes it work. Unfortunately, we have to deal with moments that try to be funny, but just fall flat. THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is a good film that had a ton of potential to be better. This is one film I wouldn’t mind a remake for. But until then, the original is definitely worth a look and a buy when Scream Factory finally releases it on DVD and Blu-Ray.