The time of the spooks is upon us! Happy Halloweeeeeeen! This time of year on TMP means Horror Half-Week, a four-day celebration of eerie films from the early to mid-20th century. Today, to cap off the series, we’re taking a look at a film made in the later half of the century but set earlier: The Town That Dreaded Sundown, from 1976 but set in the 1940s. In case you missed ’em, the past three days — Day 1: The Walking Dead (1936); Day 2: The Giant Behemoth (1959); Day 3: Isle of the Dead (1945)
Texarkana, 1946. The war has ended, and the town is growing, home-buyers and business-starters flocking in with the help of the GI Bill. On one March evening, Linda Mae Jenkins (Christine Ellsworth) and her boyfriend are parked at Lover’s Lane when suddenly their car is attacked by a man wearing a flour-sack hood.
The couple survives the attack, miraculously, but they won’t be the last to face the wrath of the hooded man. Unable to give the cops many details about their attacker, all anyone can do is wait for the next attack. The local locksmith’s business booms, as do weapon sales.
Police Chief Sullivan (Jim Citty), Deputy Ramsey (Andrew Prine), and Sheriff Barker (Robert Aquino) are trying their best to keep the town safe, but there’s only so much they can do with no clues as to the attacker’s identity. When another attack happens three weeks later — this time, a fatal attack — the police call in help from famed “lone wolf of the Texas Rangers,” J. D. Morales (Ben Johnson).
The Town That Dreaded Sundown was directed by Charles B. Pierce, a one-time ad man who lived in Texarkana and began making low-budget movies there. The film was written by Earl E. Smith.
We all love watching monster movies and ghost stories, but personally, the horror films that have always scared me the most are those about humankind, particularly those inspired by true stories of serial killers. The Town That Dreaded Sundown is based loosely on the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, eight attacks (five of which were fatal) carried out by a still-officially-unidentified serial killer.
The masked Texarkana killer as portrayed in this film is genuinely unsettling to look at, making the attack scenes all the more effectively horrifying to watch. Pierce chooses not to shy away from emphasizing the terror of what happened to this killer’s victims — being chased, watching their loved ones die in front of them. One victim is even killed with her own trombone (a knife attached to the slide) after leaving the high school dance.
Pierce does bring a sense of humor to the film in certain scenes, himself playing dim-witted Patrolman A. C. “Sparkplug” Benson, who brings several chuckles with his unrefined manners and terrible driving skills. In another humorous moment, two cops have to pretend to be “lovers,” snuggled up in a car, in attempt to attract the killer.
Despite these touches of comedy, fear and danger are never far from the forefront of this film. Or, at least they weren’t for me. Regardless of any lighter-hearted moments that occur for the investigators or the townspeople, there’s the ever-looming threat that the killer will strike again, with very few leads emerging in the investigation. There aren’t tons of jump scares or gore, but the it-could-happen-to-you premise keeps it scary.
Though nowhere near a factual account of the actual Texarkana Moonlight Murders, narration lends somewhat of a documentary feel to the film, even sounding as though it’s being read from a police report in a few scenes — another aspect of the film I liked.
If none of this has you convinced to watch, Dawn Wells of Gilligan’s Island fame makes an appearance as one of the burlap-clad phantom’s victims. Director Pierce, as well, had an interesting career worth looking into. He has a story credit on the Clint Eastwood film Sudden Impact, was a pioneer of independent film, and even worked as a set decorator on The Twilight Zone!
A unique horror/slapstick comedy/mockumentary/serial killer chiller/pre-slasher slasher, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is worthy of at least one watch by any horror fan.