THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN
The so-called Phantom Killer was a serial killer responsible for the murder of five people in the town of Texarkana over ten weeks between February and May of 1946. The first attack on a couple in a parked car ended up with both victims surviving and identifying the killer as a man who had a cloth mask over his head with cut-out holes for the nose and eyes. Three weeks later, another couple were found, having been shot in a parked car, followed by another couple three weeks after that. This sparked a massive police manhunt, headed by Texas Ranger Captain M.T. Lone Wolf Gonzaullus, which in turn brought the Phantom Killings to national press attention. With so much law enforcement attention focused on parked cars, the Phantom changed their m.o. for the final attack the attempted shooting of a married couple in their home, of which the woman survived. A great many suspects were investigated by the police at the time and others have fallen under the microscope of amateur investigators since but nobody was ever arrested and the crime spree remains an unsolved one to this day.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown does fairly well for what was expected of a True Crime film of the era. You have to remember this was a period where there was no internet thus a host of amateur sleuth sites pouring over every detail of the case and offering multiple interpretations, suspects and conspiracy theories. This means that all of the factual details of the case would have been culled either from books or looking through newspaper archives. The film never strays much from the basic facts of the case apart from changing the names of the principals, its most egregious addition to the incident is the addition of a semi-resolution to the murders with a climax where the police pursue the Phantom into the bayous (something that never happened in real life). Unlike many other True Crime films based on unsolved cases such as Zodiac (2007) and various films based on Jack the Ripper, there is no speculation offered as to the identity of The Phantom Killer they keep their mask on throughout and in fact never even get to speak any dialogue.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown has developed a modest cult reputation, largely because of being out of circulation for many years it was released to video in the early 1980s and did not appear on dvd until 2013. Charles B. Pierce does an okay job nothing too remarkable but he has improved in style and directorial assurance since The Legend of Boggy Creek only three years earlier. Everything is filmed with a documentary-like realism and accompanied by a didactic 1950s-styled narrator. There is nothing too standout about the staging of the murders, apart from a bizarre one where the killer attacks a victim pinned to a tree using a weapon improvised from a trombone. Perhaps Pierces biggest moment of directorial indulgence is the staging of a car chase probably for no other reason than that there was a fad for comical Southern moonshiner films during this period.
Pierce has a minor name cast, including Ben Johnson who has more than reasonable presence as the tough-as-nails Texas Ranger and Andrew Prine who was gaining a minor name in genre cinema of the period. Pierce himself plays the part of a bumbling comedy relief rookie cop.
Though billed as a remake, The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014) was a sequel of sorts set in the present-day with a new Phantom Killer reappearing in Texarkana.