Director – Charles B. Pierce
Cast – Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Dawn Wells, Jimmy Clem, Jim Citty, Charles B. Pierce, Robert Aquino, Cindy Butler, Christine Ellsworth, Earl E. Smith, Bud Davis, Vern Stierman(narrator)
Release Year – 1976
Reviewed by John of the Dead
The Town That Dreaded Sundown remains one of the most under-appreciated horror films of all time. Most who know of it know that it is great, so it is not necessarily underrated, but not enough horror fans have viewed this atmospheric mid-70s slasher despite the truly haunting experience it delivers. Based on a true story that took place in Texarkana back in 1946, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a film that will live on for the rest of time as both a great slasher film predating Halloween and Friday the 13th, and one of the creepiest films to never receive the attention it deserves.
Texarkana, a duo town bordering Texas and Arkansas, is under siege by a hooded killer deemed the “Phantom Killer”, terrorizing the townsfolk who venture out at night. When Texas Ranger J.D. Morales is brought in to bag the killer, dead or alive, the town sees promise in authorities apprehending this savage killer, but they have no idea the craft this killer possesses.
Aside from having one of the coolest titles in the genre, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a perfect example of the awesomeness that was (and still is) 70s horror. Shown in pseudo-documentary fashion via a narrator, this is basically The Lengend of Boggy Creek(both by the same director) for the slasher sub-genre, which has me licking my lips every time I view this piece.
While based on true events, the storyline is tight and wastes little time on anything but horror that is made even creepier by this film actually being one of the most factually correct of the numerous “based on true events”/”inspired by true events” films we find infesting the genre. This was definitely not the first time we were given a masked slasher (Blood and Black Lace did it 12 years prior), but this was the first time I had seen the usage of a sack over someone’s head, which is just about as eerie as it gets. The storyline is a very simple one that focuses on the killer’s torment of the townsfolk and their social reactions to his carnage, forcing them to take up arms and brace themselves on the possibility that they could be the next victim. This left the tension high throughout the film and the numerous sequences involving the Phantom Killer (both killing and non-killing) plus the eventual addition of a solid-mannered Texas Ranger kept things interesting and the pacing tight. Surprisingly enough, there was a fair comedic element thrown into this piece, mostly at the hands of a doofus sheriff’s deputy, showing that despite the serious nature there is a bit of intentional cheesiness involved in this piece, although the rest of the cheese provided is of the favorable unintentional variety.
Director Charles B. Pierce(RIP – 2010), who also gave us The Legend of Boggy Creek and The Evictors, did an awesome job delivering this film to us, with loads of creepy atmosphere and superb execution of the horror. The sets used were amazing, giving us a quiet town surrounded by creepy wooded areas that provided the perfect hiding spots for our killer to utilize in his torment of the town. This also made for quick crafty getaways for him to employ in this cat and mouse game with the wayward authorities who were also a step behind him. Pierce’s execution of this killer was simple yet amazing, giving us a truly haunting antagonist thanks to his attire (especially the sack) and his mannerisms, expertly delivered by actor and hall of fame stuntman Bud Davis. It takes a lot for an actor to give us a truly creepy performance for a non-speaking character, and he did so with awesome results. The look in the Phantom Killer’s eyes as he hacked and slashed away at his victims was truly epic and will remain engrained in my memory as long as I live – and THAT is a sign of a truly superb horror film. While most of the kill sequences were simple they were highly effective in delivering good horror ot the viewer, but do not underestimate the Phantom Killer, Charles B. Pierce, or writer Earl E. Smith as we are given the coolest kill involving a trombone that I have ever seen – just another reason I will forever remember this awesome piece of horror history.
Overall, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a superb 70s slasher film that gives us one of the first portrayals of a masked killer stalking the woods of a quiet town and wreaking havoc on those unfortunate enough to cross his path. One of the few horror films to actually be based on real events, the level of creepiness to this film is far above average, and director Charles B. Pierce achieves the same atmospheric success that he often attained during his career. The killer is fantastic and superbly executed, making for one of the most enjoyable slasher experiences I have ever come across.