THE TOWN THAT
I’ll say one thing for this half-baked historical saga: it has a GREAT video box
cover picturing a hooded figure’s upper torso silhouetted over a small Southern
town, a singularly haunting image that promises everything this tawdry film
fails to deliver.
The subject of THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is the mysterious hooded
individual who terrorized Texarkana, Texas back in the forties and spawned one
of the largest manhunts in US history. Five people were brutally murdered
before the “Texarkana Phantom” disappeared forever.
Filmmaker Charles B. Pierce must have seemed like an ideal choice for
helming this story; he’d already made the infamous Arkansas based “true story”
THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK. With TTTDS, Pierce was again working in the deep
South with an extremely tawdry budget, although he had the (light) weight of
American International Pictures behind him, complete with vintage sets and
costumes that appear to have been recycled from earlier AIP productions like
DILLINGER and BLOODY MAMA. Piece also had some fine actors this time around,
most notably the veteran Ben Johnson, who plays the police Captain who oversaw
But does any of this make the film any good? Not by a long shot.
A hooded man bludgeons to death a couple necking in a car one night back in
1946. This sends the town of Texarkana into a panic, and a dragnet is formed to
investigate the killings. Weeks later another couple is attacked in their
car…and a few weeks after that another, this time in their home. Panic grows
among the townspeople, who take to literally sealing themselves in their homes.
Finally, acting on an anonymous tip, the police manage to track down the killer
(in broad daylight, no less), but he escapes into a nearby swamp.
THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is, if nothing else, a perfect example of how
NOT to tell this particular story cinematically…or, better yet, proof that the
material should have been left in the hands of documentarians. Since the
killer’s identity was never discovered, no reason exists as to why the Texarkana
phantom killed people in the ways he did or how he chose his victims, which
makes for a mighty unsatisfying movie. I don’t know enough about the real-life
events to attest how authentic this film is, but it’s clear that Smith was
trying for a straightforward recounting of the facts. This, however, is one
case where a little conjecture might have helped a lot!
The opening scenes, of Texarkana residents going about their business while
hilariously monotone, Joe Friday-esque narration outlines the events the film
will relate, gives us a good idea of the type of tackiness we’re in for…and it
only gets worse.
Pierce’s filmmaking is every bit as grindingly obvious as the opening
narration. Some gratuitous gore might have livened things up—it’d be
something—but there’s little to be had in this terminally dull, witless
account (not that it really matters, as the murder sequences are all so poorly
lit I couldn’t make out much of anything). In Pierce’s defense, this film was
made several years before HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH established the
ground rules of the Slasher Film; that does not, however, excuse the fact that
this is a terrible movie by any standard.
THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN
American International Pictures
Director: Charles B. Pierce
Producer: Charles B. Pierce
Screenplay: Earl E. Smith
Cinematography: James W. Roberson
Editor: Tom Boutross
Cast: Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Dawn Wells, Jimmy Clem, Jim Citty, Charles B.
Pierce, Robert Aquino, Cindy Butler, Christine Ellsworth, Earl Smith, Steve
Lyons, Roy Lee Brown