Films “based on true events” flourished throughout the 1970s with The Last House on the Left and The Amityville Horror being the bigger names in the genre. Sadly what the films in this genre all had in common were “true” stories being anything but and forgoing story for shocks and gimmicks. The 1976 film The Town That Dreaded Sundown is one such film that leans more towards Last House on the Left with its bizarre need to insert comedy amongst tragedy but at the same time not being as gory or exploitative. The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a film seeking a genre, content to borrow elements that have worked in other films but never wondering why they worked. Thank God this film was only 90 minutes because it’s a fairly painful film to sit through.
It’s 1946 in Texarkana, Arkansas when a masked man starts shooting couples parked on lovers’ lanes. Captain J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson) and Deputy Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine) try their hardest to stop the killer but are constantly one step behind him.
The film isn’t lying when it mentions its true story as a masked killer dubbed “The Phantom” did stalk and terrorize the residents of Texarkana Texas and Arkansas (the town straddles the border between the two states) so it’s not lying when it proclaims the events are true unlike other movies in this genre. The killer was never caught and the murders remain unsolved to this day with more than a few similarities to the Zodiac killer who was terrorizing California in the late 60s-early 70s. Living in California myself and knowing quite a bit about the Zodiac I kept noticing a lot of similarities during the film and wondered if the “message” of the film was universal considering a killer of the same motive and general appearance had captivated the airwaves so close to this film’s release. If anything I just kept saying watching David Fincher‘s Zodiac would have been a better option than this.
Yeah, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a B-level movie all the way; in fact I’d go so far as to label it a television movie as it has all the momentum, scripting and acting of a film made for television even going so far as to have Gilligan’s Island star Dawn Wells playing a murder victim for a few minutes. To modern audiences the movie plays like an extended episode of Unsolved Mysteries or America’s Most Wanted complete with narrator detailing the “victims” and setting up this town as a sleepy post-WWII place where nothing bad ever happened. It’s a common trope you’ll see in similar films based on true events to give it an air of credibility reminiscent of a news story or news re-enactment with the audience always remembering “the story your about to see is true.”
Sadly all that hype and seriousness is stomped on in favor of terrible acting and an unbalanced need to soften the terror with laughs…it made no sense to me either. To start you have The Phantom terrorizing his first couple. The scenes where the Phantom attacks the car, which is repeated a few times, are so dark it takes a second to figure out what the guys doing exactly. He starts pounding crazily on the car and our victim responds with “hey mister, you got the wrong car.” The man is masked and obviously seeks to do you harm, I doubt telling him he’s looking for someone else is going to send him on his way! If you want to present an honest depiction of a brutal and sadistic killer then do so! Don’t sugarcoat it with supposedly funny moments as they only seek to cheapen the heinous crimes and make audiences believe the story is less than true or that the reason this guy wasn’t caught was being the cops are idiots.
Oh and does this film make the cops of Texarkana, Arkansas look like rubes! The majority of the “humor” is based on making fun of the yokels of the town who are more incompetent than Barney Fife if you can believe it. The main source of these supposed laughs is a character named Sparkplug whose original name is probably mentioned once and I didn’t remember it thus why I can’t find the actor’s name (sorry). Anyway your supposed to find Sparkplug hilarious as he answers the phones at the police station and openly threatens callers. This is the guy whose gonna tell you to quit calling or else he’ll come over and save The Phantom the trip…great guy! The scenes with him and the other cops are incredibly similar to the two incompetent cops Wes Craven cut to in Last House on the Left. It wasn’t funny four years before, it’s not funny now! Add to this some Benny Hill music (and in one scene where Sparkplug crashes the police cruise there’s actually “wha-wha-whaaa” music played) and you’ve lessened the impact of five people being viciously slaughtered, if by lessened I mean completely made their deaths look pointless. I mean the cops don’t do a good job at all of solving this case (and it’s not like they’re already hindered by the lack of knowledge of DNA or fingerprinting). One scene has them trying to perform a sting operation and stake out a lovers lane. Well of course the Phantom is going to know if it’s not a man and a woman so what do you do? Cross-dressing cops, ah yeah! And the guy whose supposedly going to crack the case wide open, Captain Morales? He actually has to make a pit stop to buy a cigar so let’s go follow him and see him do that! It’s scenes like these that make the film 90 minutes.
I mentioned before that this film is akin to Unsolved Mysteries and when the film does focus on the murders they’re purely bad re-enactments you’d see on that show. The actors are all bad, content to scream and flail their arms with little interest in actually saving themselves (again, making the victims look incompetent) and one murder even has the killer stabbing a woman with her own trombone. You read that right, he attaches a knife to her trombone and plays it to stab her! I’ve seen The Last House on the Left and while that had disembowling and the lot I was aghast at this scene because not only is it sadistic, it’s freaking stupid! I’m not sure if that’s based in fact at all but it’s so ludicrous it must be fake. Oh and when one guy is shot in the face you can see him blink, plain as day. There’s even manipulative camera angles to force you to connect with characters, seen when two young lovers stare at each other across the room at a dance, the camera has to zoom in on their faces in case you weren’t sure if they were in love or not. Even the narrator gets fed up with this cheesy retelling as he stars padding the runtime with irrelevant facts like “Ramsey carried a twelve-gauge shotgun.” Keep in mind that lines said after all the facts are dispersed and he’s supposed to stop talking.
I know there are fans of bad movies and exploitation who will be tempted to see this and I don’t begrudge them but this film is just bad. The Last House on the Left isn’t based on a true story like The Town That Dreaded Sundown so there’s no reason not to focus on the stupidity or the gore. Here, these were real people and to lessen their deaths by making them funny or focusing on how the cops were idiots who obviously let this guy go is offensive to them. To be plain, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is stupid. It’s 90 minutes and I didn’t come to know any of the characters, victims or cops. Everyone’s face is so bland that I didn’t even remember names once this movie ended. At one point I stopped and realized the film had ten minutes left, that’s how swiftly and blandly it moves along to its dull conclusion. It’s not available on DVD and I can see why, it’s just not worth remembering.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.