The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

  • Time: 90 min
  • Genre: Crime | Drama | Horror
  • Director: Charles B. Pierce
  • Cast: Ben Johnson, Dawn Wells, Andrew Prine


Set in the late 40’s the residents of Texarkana, Texas are left terrorized by a mysterious hooded killer who is stalking victims during the evening and leaving the local police at a loss.

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  • Shortly after World War II ended, the community of Texarkana, Arkansas were finally piecing their lives back together and preparing for a time of harmony and peace. That is, until a masked psychopath, dubbed the ‘Phantom Killer’ by the press, starts a killing spree that will shake the city to its very core. Writer and director Charles B. Pierce (who also has a supporting role as a bumbling deputy) flaunts his artistic license with the events that actually occurred in 1946, informing us that “only the names have been changed,” when in fact the story is altered considerably to form a traditional thriller narrative, yet the result is an effective horror.

    The Town That Dreaded Sundown could be labelled as one of the first ‘slasher’ movies, having emerged two years before John Carpenter’s Halloween, the film that really kicked-off the genre. Yet while there is slashing-a-plenty, the film also works just as well as a police procedural and a docudrama, with the majority of the attention focusing on the heavy toll the murders take on the city’s terrified inhabitants, and the desperate actions of the police trying to catch him. Reliable deputy sheriff Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine) is given the task of overlooking the investigation, and when the few leads they have lead to dead-ends, legendary Texas Ranger J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson) – based on real-life Ranger Manuel ‘Lone Wolf’ Gonzaullas – is drafted in to take charge.

    The highlights of The Town That Dreaded Sundown come in the form of some very effective murder set-pieces. There are no drawn-out stalking scenes of hapless victims running screaming through the woods or lashings of over-the-top gore. Instead, the killings are brutal and straight-to-the-point, with the sound of killers near-orgasmic breathing, which are muffled through the killer’s gunny sack disguise, proving incredibly discomforting. What I didn’t expect was the sudden tonal shifts to slapstick comedy. The inept deputy ‘Sparkplug’, played by Pierce, seems to have wandered in from a Marx Brothers set, with his frequently idiotic mishaps, such as accidentally driving Ramsey and Morales into a lake for them to emerge wet and grumpy, jarring the film’s flow and carefully built atmosphere. These unwelcome comedy interludes are a constant and unnecessary distraction, and means that the film falls way short of the 70’s horror classic it could have been.

    Rating: 3/5

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