The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

Toolbox Murders

Welcome to Spring Break

My Bloody Valentine

Honeymoon Horror

The Town That Dreaded Sundown

Lava Lamp

Our rating: one LAVA® motion lamp.

Town that Dreaded Sundown
Frustrated by his constant rejection
on The Gong Show, the Unknown Comic
turns to violence.
Can you make a movie that is 100% exposition? Sure, so long as you don't care that it's an interesting movie. That's the case with The Town That Dreaded Sundown, a movie that tells the (mostly) true story of a series of unsolved slayings in and near Texarkana during the first half of 1946. The Town That Dreaded Sundown does not much more than present us with the facts surrounding the killings, along with some fairly limp recreations and some Odious Comic ReliefTM. Drama? Action? Climax? These are things for other movies. For any of you who have ever complained that a movie took liberty with history, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a perfect example of how merely hewing to historical fact does not guarantee a cinematic gem. Sometimes, history is just boring -- or worse, inconclusive.

After the narrator takes a good five minutes to introduce us to Texarkana and its surrounding environs, we watch as Sammy Fuller (Mike Hackworth) and Emma Lou Cook (Misty West) park on a deserted lover's lane. Since we know that young people didn't have pre-marital sex back in 1946, we can only assume that they are parked there for some privacy while they discuss the works of Marcel Proust. Before the conversation can really get going, though, their car is attacked by somebody wearing a burlap sack on his head. The assailant drags Sammy and Emma Lou out of the car and beats them both badly, though both survive.

Town that Dreaded Sundown
"And if Chuck Norris doesn't make any
sudden moves before I shoot, I'll never
have to watch another episode of
Walker, Texas Ranger."
The next morning the local Sheriff's deputy, Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine), begins his investigation of the attack. At first he's stymied by the fact that neither Sammy nor Emma Lou is in any condition to talk. Acting on instinct, Ramsey begins patrolling the various places where kids park. Exactly twenty-one days after the first attack, Ramsey hears shots down a lonely road. Hurrying through the rain to investigate, Ramsey finds two dead bodies and sees a car driving from the scene. These two victims were shot, and the Texarkana police are now convinced that they have an serial killer on the loose, and his violence is escalating. The killer is dubbed the Phantom Killer.

To deal with this threat, the Texarkana police bring in Capt. J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson). Morales is, according to the ever helpful narrator, a Texas Ranger who always gets his man. After that the movie pretty much follows this pattern: Morales and Ramsey, accompanied by Odious Comic ReliefTM Patrolman A.C. "Sparkplug" Benson (Charles Pierce), chase down a dumb lead that goes nowhere. Every now and then the Phantom Killer strikes, and we are then forced to sit through an overly long and underly exciting murder scene.

Town that Dreaded Sundown
Dom Deluise's short-lived career
as a sex symbol.
The movie is shot so matter-of-factly that it resembles a very long episode of Dragnet -- without any of the resolution (or stodgy moralizing) that accompanied the adventures of Detective Friday. The narrator is relied upon so much that he begins to seem like a character himself, especially because he often presents more information than we need to know, or that should be presented on screen. The goofiest announcement the narrator makes is when Ramsey sees the killer driving away from the scene of the second attack. Ramsey raises his shotgun to his shoulder, then puts it down. "Norman Ramsey was close that night, but he did not fire, for he knew the Phantom was just out of range," the narrator tells us, "Ramsey was carrying a twelve gauge shotgun." The scene ends. A twelve-gauge shotgun? Are audiences expected to know the range of a twelve-gauge shotgun? If so, why weren't we given the exact distance to the car so that we could make the calculations necessary to assure ourselves that Ramsey couldn't possibly have hit the car?

Later in the film, when the narrator's ramblings became scarce, we missed them so much that we began making up our own overly-detailed narration. "This is Roy Allen's car. He has fourteen monthly payments left to make. The air in the left front tire is a little low." Keeping with the Dragnet comparisons, the acting in The Town That Dreaded Sundown is bland and perfunctory, with the exception of Ben Johnson as Morales. It seems likely that director Charles B. Pierce subscribed to the Jack Webb school of directing actors, which can be summed up by "just say the words."

Town that Dreaded Sundown
About now, she's wishing she could be
stranded on a desert isle.
Oddly, the Charles Pierce (no relation to the director, as near as we can tell) who plays Patrolman "Sparkplug" Benson is a well-known female impersonator, and one of the ways he odiously provides comic relief is by dressing up as a very unconvincing woman. At another point he accidentally jumps a patrol car into a pond in a scene that seems inspired by The Dukes of Hazzard.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a sad little movie that no one needs to see, but its true-story origins and "factual" presentation have given it a more positive reputation than it deserves. The actual Texarkana murders, though mysterious and brutal, were never solved and only involved a handful of victims, so there's not much to present. In the hopes of goosing the film's excitement a bit, the writer added a fictional chase to the end of the film, in which Morales and Ramsey catch up with the killer in an isolated spot outside of town. There, despite the fact that it's broad daylight and he doesn't seem to doing anything illegal or incriminating, the killer is walking around in his hood! Morales, unrestrained by pesky laws, takes a shot at the killer without warning. The killer shoots back, and a chase is on. The Phantom escapes into a nearby swamp, though he is badly wounded. We suppose this silliness was added to give our heroes at least one heroic thing to do.

The most entertaining thing about Sundown is that the killer's final victim (who lives through the attack) is played by Dawn Wells -- yup, Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island. If the producers of this movie had hired the remaining castaways to be the other victims of the Phantom Killer, that might have provided us with some entertainment. But alas, like most of our good ideas for movies, it was not to be.

Own it!

Review date: 01/14/2000

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