In 1946, the town of Texarkana, on the Texas-Arkansas border, was rocked by a series of brutal attacks on its citizens from February to May that left five people dead and three seriously wounded. The psycho, who wore what seemed to be a white pillowcase with eyeholes cut in it, caused quite a panic among the townsfolk, and the local and national press had a field day sensationalizing the gruesome events. The case was dubbed “The Texas Moonlight Murders”, and the mysterious maniac “The Phantom Killer”. Famed Texas Ranger M.T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullus was brought in to lead the investigation and rounded up a few suspects, but no one was ever formally charged with the grisly crimes. To this day, the case has never officially been solved.
Forty years later, Texarkana native Charles B. Pierce produced, directed, and costarred in THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, a film based on those infamous past events. Pierce had grown up a movie-mad kid, and had a variety of show biz related jobs, including TV weatherman, running his own ad agency, and set decorator for films like WACO and PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW . In 1972, he borrowed $100,000, grabbed a 35mm camera, hired a bunch of locals, and made his own film, THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, a horror tale about the fictitious Foulke Monster who lived in the swamps of Arkansas. Released by South Carolina-based Howco International, the low-budget regional thriller raked in almost five million bucks at the box office, mainly in drive-ins and on the Southern circuit. Pierce’s next solo effort, the action comedy BOOTLEGGERS (starring a pre-CHARLIE’S ANGELS Jaclyn Smith), also did well, but a pair of Westerns (WINTERHAWK, THE WINDS OF AUTUMN) didn’t, so the Arkansas auteur returned to horror with this creepy little gem.
THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN isn’t perfect – there’s a lot of padding involving an inept cop named Benson intended for comic relief. In fact, Pierce himself plays the dumb cracker, and director Pierce should’ve told actor Pierce to cut the crap and get out of the story’s way! That story, written by Earl E. Smith (who also has a role, as a shrink brought in to consult on the case), is one of those “the incredible story you are about to see is true… only the names have been changed” types, as intoned in Vern Stierman’s narration. Our Phantom Killer debuted two years before Michael Myers, four years before Jason, and eight before Freddie, making him one of the first (if not the first) of the silent slashers (well, silent except for the chatty, pun loving Freddie).
The opening scene is pretty damn frightening, with our hooded killer emerging from the woods and attacking a young couple parked out on Lover’s Lane. On a rain-soaked night three weeks later, Deputy Norman Ramsey hears shots fired out on a lonely back road, and discovers two dead bodies. The town is now up in arms, literally, as area gun shops quickly sell out. Texas Ranger Capt. J.D. Morales (like I said, “the names have been changed”) vows, “I plan on catching him… or killing him”. But in another three weeks, the killer strikes again, this time a pair of teens out late after the prom, and he ties the girl to a tree and murders her in an skillfully directed and edited scene involving a trombone! The final attack finds The Phantom shooting a man down as he sits in his easy chair, then stalking the man’s wife (effectively played by GILLIGAN’S ISLAND star Dawn Wells) with a pickaxe, as she barely escapes with her life.
Besides the former castaway Mary Ann, the cast features Oscar winner Ben Johnson as the Texas Ranger Morales. I don’t know if it’s just Johnson’s laconic style or he’s walking through the part, but he doesn’t seem very interested to me. Better is Andrew Prine as Deputy Ramsey, who acts like he’s actually invested in his role. Stuntman Bud Davis plays The Phantom Killer, and he’s quite menacing with his size and heavy breathing underneath that pillowcase mask. The rest of the cast is populated by locals and non-actors; the victims give it their all in the wide-eyed screaming department under Pierce’s direction.
Charles B. Pierce directed a few more films (including a BOGGY CREEK sequel that later got the MST3K treatment), but none of them matched the success of THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN. The movie began the onslaught of psycho-killer films to come, and slasher fans can be grateful for that. It’s certainly not the greatest film ever made, but Pierce, like other regional auteurs working outside the studio system, did the best he could with what he had. Like Herschell Gordon Lewis and George Romero before him, Pierce helped usher in an entire new horror genre, one that’s still going strong today.