Other than being one of the many serial-killer movies referenced in Scream, Charles B. Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown has, for most of the world outside Texarkana, fallen into obscurity. For the most part, sadly, it deserves to languish there, though it is sort of entertaining in its own corny, half-ass way. Predating Halloween and its innumerable clones by two years, the movie occupies a neutral zone between the slasher genre and the police procedural. It’s all — loosely, one assumes — based on fact, and the stentorian narrator, who can always be counted on to chime in at the most amusing times, informs us that “only the names have been changed”; you just don’t hear that at the movies anymore.
In 1946, the town of Texarkana, a border town between Texas and Arkansas, was terrorized by a lovers’-lane killer dubbed “the Phantom.” Striking every 21 days, he dispatched the young men and sexually assaulted and murdered the women. He eluded the authorities at every turn, until finally, a few months after the first murders, a suspect named Youell Swinney was taken into custody. Was he guilty? To this day, no one is really sure, though Texarkana law enforcement was starting to look bad, and needed a boogeyman behind bars. Some believe the Phantom got away scot free, to murder again in Florida while Swinney was awaiting trial. In any event, Swinney was released from prison in 1974. It’s a classic unsolved mystery, and might have made a good hour-long segment for the Robert Stack show.
At even a 90-minute length, though, the story as told here feels absurdly padded. Director Pierce dawdles over the most inane sidebars, such as a scene in which a temperamental and inept cop (played by Pierce himself) gets all the way to his police car, realizes he’s forgotten his keys, goes all the way back into the precinct, goes through his desk, and is finally pointed to a big red sign reading CAR KEYS. In another scene, a big-deal Texas Ranger (poor old Ben Johnson), who swaggers in to take over the case and tell everyone what’s what, ambles over to a cigar stand and asks “You got any see-gars?” while standing right next to a large display of cigars. If Pierce’s point is that the Phantom foiled the cops because the cops had the combined IQ of chowder, the point is made rather laboriously, and at the expense of pace and suspense.
Dead as the movie often is, some money and effort went into it; the post-WWII milieu is replicated with some care. The Town That Dreaded Sundown (a terrific title) obviously wants to be more than a slasher movie — it wants to swim in the same waters as In Cold Blood, The Boston Strangler, The Honeymoon Killers, Badlands, and other true-crime films of the ’60s and ’70s. In practice, though, it plays like a dumpy TV-movie, and the killer, by definition, has no readily identifiable motive or personality. That’s the trap of a movie about a killer who was never caught, although the many fictional riffs on Jack the Ripper seemed to get around it. Somebody smart and talented — maybe either of the Austin filmmakers, Richard Linklater (who could certainly craft a decent film focusing on the townspeople and their fearful response to the crimes) or Robert Rodriguez (who could make a fast, snappy B-movie out of the material) — could remake the film. And why not? People always remake great movies; why not revisit a bad movie and do it better?
Most students of horror cinema will slap themselves awake solely for the murder scenes, which generally don’t reward one’s attention. A cretinous couple goes parking, the Phantom (in his burlap hood with eyeholes, ripped off by Friday the 13th Part 2) arrives with his gun and kills them. We see teeth marks on a woman’s body — the Phantom’s a biter, apparently, a sexual sadist — and, in the most notorious moment, the killer affixes his knife to a trombone and slides the blade in and out of a woman’s back. Dawn Wells, forever Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island, shows up as a victim who, as in real life, gets shot in the face by the Phantom but somehow survives. And there’s a completely goofball sequence in which various cops dress in drag as decoys, with their male cop partners having fun feeling them up in jest. When not styling in the height of 1946 fashion, the cops drive into ponds, sit around at a restaurant somberly discussing the killer’s sexual kinks with a psychiatrist, and shoot at train wheels trying to plug the fleeing Phantom. If the killer is indeed Still Out There Somewhere, he probably pops in this video every 21 days for a good laugh.