THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is a phenomenal oddity, even amongst the ranks of indie-horror and little-known cult movies. Producer/director Charles B. Pierce and his writing partner, Earl E. Smith, crafted the story from a real-life occurence, the “Texarkana Moonlight Murders” committed by a serial killer who was never caught. Pierce and Smith are slightly better known for their 1972 Bigfoot movie, THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, which took a similar halfway-a-documentary approach to material even less rooted in fact. Pierce also worked as a set decorator on films like COFFY, DILLINGER, BLACK BELT JONES, and THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES. He reportedly became friendly with Clint Eastwood, to the point that he supplied the story for SUDDEN IMPACT (the Dirty Harry movie with Sondra Locke) and arguably even the line, “Go ahead, make my day.” So we’re talking about one of those mildly-obscure but noteworthy figures — not everyone can be Eastwood-famous, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of filmmakers with stories to tell, both onscreen and behind-the-scenes.
What makes THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN such an endearingly bizarre curiosity is the tone of the movie. It plays something like a prehistoric America’s Most Wanted episode, only spookier, sillier, and way weirder than any straight-faced reality-TV true-crime documentary ever. It also falls in an interesting zone on the continuum of essential horror films of the 1970s, coming two years after THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE — with its deadpan John Larroquette narration — and two years before HALLOWEEN, with its unforgettable masked killer. Either inspiring or predicting the canny casting choices of HALLOWEEN, THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is filled with unknown actors, with two significant exceptions. In HALLOWEEN, the veteran character actor pursuing the killer was Donald Pleasance. In THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, it’s sturdy Western star Ben Johnson — oddly enough, playing a Latin character, Captain Morales of the Texas Rangers. In HALLOWEEN, the ingenue with an attention-getting name was Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis. In THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, it’s Dawn Wells…. You know, Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island. I think I mentioned this movie isn’t entirely serious. (Mary Ann is actually not at all bad in the movie though!)
THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN shuttles through genres and tones frequently throughout its brief running time. Some parts, the ones that establish the towns where the killings took place, are as dry yet nostalgically appealing as a 1950s educational film. Occasionally, the tone veers wildly into ridiculous farce, such as when a deputy (played by Charles Pierce himself) draws the short straw and is forced to dress as a woman in an ill-advised attempt to draw out the killer.
But the actual horror-movie scenes are by far the most memorable. The scenes where the masked killer stalks and attacks his victims have a sloppy, unpredictable energy and a weirdly-detailed specificity. There’s a scene where the hooded murderer straps a woman’s arms around a tree face-first, ties a knife to a trombone, and starts stabbing her in the back as if he’s playing an instrument. It’d be funny if it weren’t so absurdly horrible.
Oddest of all, the climactic scene of the film recalls nothing so much as a Western. (The film’s title has that vague vibe also, come to think of it.) Towards the end of the movie, Ben Johnson’s Captain Morales and his sidekick Ramsey (Andrew Prine) spot the Phantom Killer in broad daylight and chase him through the woods until they reach train tracks. They get a few shots off, but the killer uses the passing train to escape. I don’t know about you, but the last time I saw Ben Johnson near a moving train it was in THE WILD BUNCH. And that was based remotely off of real life too. What’s so intriguing about the invocation of Western tropes is that, THE WILD BUNCH excluded, many Westerns ended in triumph for their heroes. This surely doesn’t. The Phantom Killer escapes, and as the movie tells us, he was never caught. While the movie takes its liberties with fact, this part of the account of the Texarkana Moonlight Murders is resolutely true.
Somehow, even after decades of true-crime accounts since, the experience of watching THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN manages to make the knowledge of this cosmic injustice feel haunting and eerie. It’s one of the most oddly genial serial-killer movies you’ll ever see, but that ingratiating quality can be disarming. It’s still a pretty damn freaky little movie.
THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is coming to Blu-Ray soon, courtesy of Scream Factory (the horror division of the DVD label Shout Factory.)
Breeze through my small town on Twitter: @jonnyabomb