The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

I’ve been familiar with this particular title for a good number of years but it always just stayed in the peripherals of the horror/serial killer genre for me. In 1996, it received a rather prominent ‘shout-out’ in Scream and as a result, I mentally ‘bookmarked’ it for an eventual viewing. Having now seen this strange entry into the horror genre, I’m not too sure how I feel about it. For those who don’t know the story, the flick centers on the true-life 1946 manhunt for a hooded killer that was responsible for 5 deaths and a number of vicious assaults on ‘lovers lanes’, in rural Texarkana. In many respects, ‘The Phantom’, as the murderer comes to be known, is a precursor to the Zodiac Killer of the late 60s/early 70s, in California. In fact, rumors existed suggesting that The Phantom may have actually been The Zodiac taking up his old homicidal hobbies in a new locale. Regardless, this movie does a decent job of sticking fairly close to the facts, where details of the murders are concerned. Considering that this killer was never caught, again like The Zodiac, there is a certain amount of expected ‘let down’ when the flick ends with no justice-laden conclusion. As for the film style, this one is interesting. Being a low-budget product of the mid-70s, there is a certain B-movie charm to it. There is a distinct narration that guides the viewer through the film, detailing the events that we see with supposed ‘facts’, many of which ARE accurate. Being a period piece, the filmmakers did a decent job of presenting a credible approximation of post-WW2 Texas. The acting is all over the map, ranging from surprisingly engaging to flat-out ‘campy’. And speaking of ‘campy’, there is an element to this flick that REALLY does it a major disservice. For some inexplicable reason, they decided that this film was in need of a comic-relief ‘device’. Mostly, this turns up in the form of a doofus police deputy who’s every move is seemingly there to annoyingly distract the viewer from the drama of the murders and subsequent hunt. This ‘Benson’ character is often accompanied by goofy ‘banjo and harmonica’ music, which is completely at odds with the established tone. On the flip side, some of the murders are effective, despite obvious budget constraints. If you’ve ever wanted to see the gorgeous (in her day) Dawn Wells (Mary Ann from Gilligans Island) take two bullets to the face and then crawl through a moonlit cornfield, while the hooded killer stalks her brandishing a nasty-looking pick-axe, then this is the movie for you! There’s a killing, earlier in the film, where The Phantom ties a female victim to a tree then stabs her to death with a pocket knife lashed to the victims discarded trombone. As he mimics playing, he drives the blade into the girls exposed back. It’s not a gory scene, but it’s so bizarre that it succeeds in being unsettling. Many of the established ‘devices’ of the slasher genre have to hand some credit to this movie, like the shrieking victim being chased through a dark forest, or the glimpses of the killers POV as he approaches. When film turned up on the scene, those were pretty fresh elements; having yet to become ‘conventions’ of the genre. Be warned though: Anytime that a female character screams in terror, be prepared to feel as though someone pierced your inner ear with a shard of glass. It all sounds like the same scream (used over and over again), and it is bloody annoying! The Town That Dreaded Sundown also boasts some cool use of slow-mo. Overall, if you have any interest in the origins of the modern ‘slasher’ flick, this is a good place to start. It’s just too bad that some of the decisions (ie comic relief goofiness) have a jarring effect on the narrative. It’s not great, but nor is it Gawd-awful. I’d call it a cinematic ‘curiosity’.

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