Down here in Texas, we love our legends and the Phantom Killer is one of the most haunting. In 1946, as American soldiers were returning from World War II and the country was looking forward to a future of peace and prosperity, an unknown killer stalked the moonlit streets of my former hometown of Texarkana, Texas. (Technically, of course, Texarkana is located in both Texas and Arkansas. In Texas, it’s usually assumed that the killer had to be from the Arkansas half of the town.) From February until May, he attacked 8 people and killed 5 of them. He stalked lovers who were parking at night and those that survived said that he hid his face underneath a white mask. Despite the best efforts of both the Texas Rangers and the Texarkana police, the Phantom Killer was never captured and his reign of violence ended just as mysteriously as it began.
(My personal theory is that he ended up moving to California where he later became the Zodiac killer because, seriously, the two cases are so disturbingly similar. Eventually, he left California and moved to Ohio and, living under a false name, he killed himself in 2002. )
When you read the facts of the Phantom Killer’s murder spree (not to mention all of the rumors and urban legends that have sprung up around the case), the main thing that jumps out at you is just how much it all truly does sound like a low-budget horror film. Therefore, it’s not surprising to discover that, in 1976, the case served as the basis for just that. What is surprising is just how effective The Town The Dreaded Sundown is.
The film was directed by Charles B. Pierce, an independent filmmaker who was based in Arkansas. Pierce had previously directed The Legend of Boggy Creek, a “documentary” that was about the mysterious Bigfoot-like creature who is rumored to live in Fouke, Arkansas. (Fouke, incidentally, is a town that my family briefly called home though none of us ever saw or heard any Bigfoots wandering about.) Using the money that he made off of the Boggy Creek film, Pierce wrote, directed, and produced The Town The Dreaded Sundown.
Using the same technique that made The Legend of Boggy Creek such a success, Pierce filmed The Town That Dreaded Sundown on location in Texarkana and, along with established actors like Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, and
Tina Louise Dawn Welles, Pierce cast the film with local citizens. When seen on screen, it’s obvious that these citizens are not professional actors. However, what they may lack in talent they make up for authenticity. (If nothing else, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a rare Texas-set film in that it doesn’t feature any yankees butchering the dialect.) The fact that the film is narrated by a grim-sounding narrator only adds to the film’s documentary-like feel.
Admittedly, the film does take some liberties with the story of the Phantom Killer but what’s important is that it’s accurate when it matters. The film gets the basic facts correct and even the most outlandish of embellishments (such as a scene where the killer uses a trombone to kill one of his victims) don’t detract from the film’s power to frighten and disturb. If nothing else, these feel like the type of details that one might spontaneously mention while telling an old ghost story. Unlike a lot of “true crime” films, The Town The Dreaded Sundown never devotes too much time to trying to figure out the killer’s motives or drop hints as to his identity. Instead, the film emphasizes the fact that the Phantom Killer could never be understood and was never stopped. He simply existed, a malevolent force of evil. This makes the film far more effective than it would have been if Pierce had spent the movie trying to explain that which can not be explained.
Unfortunately, The Town That Dreaded Sundown has never been released on DVD but it does show up occasionally on TCM. Keep an eye out for it!