TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, THE (director: Charles B. Pierce; screenwriter: Earl E. Smith; cinematographer: Jim Roberson; editor: Tom Boutross; music: Jaime Mendosa-Nova; cast: Ben Johnson (Captain J.D. Morales), Andrew Prine (Deputy Norman Ramsey), Dawn Wells (Helen Reed), Vern Stierman (Narrator), Bud Davis (Phantom Killer), Don Adkins (Suspect),Charles B. Pierce(Patrolman A.C. Benson/Sparkplug), Jimmy Clem (Sgt. Mal Griffin), Earl E. Smith (Dr. Kress); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Charles B. Pierce; AIP; 1976)
“The true story is so fascinating that it overcomes most of the film-making flaws.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Charles B. Pierce (“Bootleggers”/”Grayeagle”/”The Norsemen”) awkwardly directs this low-budget thriller based on a true crime story about a psychopath serial killer. It takes place in the spring and summer of 1946 in Texarkana, Arkansas. It’s filmed as a docudrama, with an unseen narrator (Vern Stierman) following the action and developments with ongoing updates. For filler material and comic relief, the director plays a bumbling police dispatcher and driver nicknamed Sparkplug, material that was neither funny nor needed but took up too much time from the main story.
The killer is seen wearing a white flour sack hood and breathing hard, then there are shots of his feet, from the trouser cuffs down, as he takes slow deliberate steps in the field to attack his victims. We watch the phantom killer first attack a young couple necking in lover’s lane. They are badly beaten and she’s severely bitten in her breasts and back. Three weeks later in another lover’s lane spot, Deputy Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine) hears shots in the woods and soon discovers the corpses of a young couple. When the story goes national, the most honored of all Texas Rangers, the legendary Captain J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson), is sent from Austin to head the investigation. Despite setting traps on all the lover’s lanes three weeks later and warning the teens not to go there, the homicidal maniac strikes again. This time it’s when the junior/senior prom is held, as a foolish couple ignore the warnings and go necking in a deserted city spot. The phantom killer beats to death the trombonist and then uses the instrument as a bayonet, attaching a knife to the slide, to kill the coed with repeated thrusts while mockingly playing it. In the next attack, the killer goes off his usual way of killing by going to the home of a beautiful married woman (Dawn Wells) he spots in the city and fatally shoots her husband and then beats the wife, who survives when she manages to reach her neighbor’s lawn late at night. Several weeks go by without an incident, but a police officer spots the car stolen by the killer from the second attack. Thereby Morales and Ramsey explore the isolated area that’s nearby to a sandpit. They spot the phantom killer wearing a hood while standing around the sandpit and give chase, even wounding him in the leg with a rifle blast, but he escapes into the swamp and mysteriously vanishes forever.
We’re left to wonder if he’s in jail on another charge or if he’s dead or did he just stop his attacks or move to another place or did he just change his killing style. What we do know of this dangerous enigmatic hooded lunatic is that he’s never been caught, his dark motives are of one crazy dude and he attacked eight people for a brief time in 1946, in Texarkana, and five died before he vanished.
The AIP film has the cheap look of a B film, some of the crime scenes are brutal to watch, clumsily directed and the narrative never builds tension. But the true story is so fascinating that it overcomes most of the film-making flaws. It also helps that a great actor like Ben Johnson and a good one like Andrew Prine are there to counter all the weak performances from the mostly amateur cast.
REVIEWED ON 6/17/2012 GRADE: B-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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