Review: The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

In 1946, this man killed four people.... Today he still lurks the streets of Texarkana, Texas.

In 1946, this man killed five people…. Today he still lurks the streets of Texarkana, Texas.

THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (1976)
Rated R / Color / 90 minutes
Directed by Charles B. Pierce
Also Known As: Der Umleger
Purchase it: Amazon.com (Blu-ray/DVD combo)

THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN has been on my radar for a very long time and I’m super excited that I finally had the chance to watch it. Directed by Charles B. Pierce (best known for his two LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK movies), this film chronicles the events of the “Phantom Killer” case, which occurred in Texarkana in the Spring of 1946.

After a brief intro to set the backdrop (and the mood), TOWN kicks off with a brutal attack on a young couple named Sammy and Linda Mae, by a mysterious masked assailant. Their crime? Parking in a “lover’s lane” in the middle of the night.

Their attacker manages to sneak up on them and disable their vehicle, before smashing the driver’s side window and violently yanking Sammy out into the darkness. After the boyfriend is subdued, the “Phantom Killer” focuses his attention on Linda.

She is discovered the following morning by the side of the road, battered, bloody, and bitten. Both kids survive the ordeal but the police are baffled by the crime and the person behind it. The “Moonlight Murders” have begun.

Twenty-one days later, a second, this time fatal, attack occurs. Desperately in need of aid, deputy Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine) teams with a famed Texas Ranger named J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson), to try and bring the unknown villain to justice.

Despite their best efforts, the Phantom Killer manages to strike again, practically right under their noses. This time, the psychopath claims a victim after turning a trombone into a deadly weapon. You can gaze upon the ludicrous “Death by Trombone” sequence below:

During TOWN’s final act, there is one more murderous attempt by the Phantom Killer, where he conducts his first ever home invasion. This eventually leads to a cool chase sequence, in which the wily murderer is wounded. But just when it seems like our heroes have got him, the killer succeeds in evading the authorities and is never seen again.

The killer’s disappearance has since lead to various unanswerable questions: Who was he? Why did he start, and then suddenly stop killing? Did he successfully get away only to get arrested elsewhere for another crime? Did he perish in the swamps where he made his escape? Or his he still lurking about the streets of Texarkana, keeping his murderous urges in check, lest he be discovered?! To this day… no one knows.

THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is a cool little film that keeps things rather low key. Though it takes quite a few liberties with the facts from the case (e.g. the killer never weaponized a trombone; the police never wounded their suspect and chased him into a swamp), it keeps the core elements of the murders and also creates an atmosphere of paranoia.

Though the killer’s identity is never known, the film gives the impression that he walks unnoticed amongst the rest of the townsfolk. Hell, he’s even sitting nearby at a restaurant when the police and rangers meet up with a psychologist to learn more about their suspect.

Ol' Blue Eyes is back... FOR REVENGE! Frank Sinatra IS The Phantom Killer IN "The Town That Dreaded Sundown!"

Ol’ Blue Eyes is back… FOR REVENGE! Frank Sinatra IS The Phantom Killer IN “The Town That Dreaded Sundown!”

Along with a solid cast of main characters, a moody soundtrack, and a memorable antagonist that would inspire other cinematic slayers (e.g. the bag-headed Jason Voorhees in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2), THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is a pretty interesting little movie. Though considered by most to be a horror movie (all the classic slasher tropes are utilized here), it definitely feels more like a made-for-TV docudrama.

TOWN is rather bloodless: The gore is kept to a minimum, forcing the audience’s imagination to fill in all the sadistic blanks of the villain’s actions. The only exception to this rule is when Dawn Wells gets a bullet through her face before her narrow escape.

While it may bore younger horror enthusiasts, this is something that seasoned fans of fright flicks will surely enjoy. It may not be completely factual, and has several completely unnecessary scenes (i.e. every moment of “comic relief” provided by Director Charles B. Pierce), but overall it’s a really solid effort that surely must have thrilled and terrified audiences in its day.

Though he’ll always be best known for THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, Charles B. Pierce’s THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is a classic in its own right, and is definitely worth a look. That’s why I’m giving it a rating of:

BLU-RAY REVIEW

The Packaging: The film comes in the standard Blu-ray case with its original theatrical poster art on the cover. (Pictured at the top left of this review.) It’s simplistic, but definitely effective, and is one of the main things everyone remembers about this movie.

Audio and Video: The disc offers up Dolby Digital Mono and DTS-HD Master Audio Mono, and both are pretty good; I’ve got no complaints here. As for the video quality… IT. IS. ASTOUNDING! For a low-budget film made in late 70s, the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer here frequently looks pristine! Kudos to Scream Factory for putting so much love into giving us fans the best audio and video possible!

The Extras: This disc offers up a ton of cool special features that are all worth checking out. The main extra worth mentioning is another feature-length film by Charles B. Pierce called THE EVICTORS which is located on the DVD that comes in this combo pack. It’s a surprisingly good little thriller by Pierce, and features Vic Morrow! Definitely give it a watch!

Dawn Wells' reaction upon hearing that Gilligan's Island would not be renewed for a fourth season.

Dawn Wells’ reaction upon hearing that Gilligan’s Island would not be renewed for a fourth season.

Also on the disc is an audio commentary with historian Jim Presley (an expert on the actual “Moonlight Murders” case), and moderator Justin Beahm. I only listened to snippets of it (mainly during the last thirty minutes or so) but it proved to be pretty interesting. I will most definitely be watching TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN again with the commentary track on from the beginning.

The remainder of the extras include: Interviews with star Andrew Prine (who reveals that he wrote the ending of the film because it didn’t have one!), actress Dawn Wells (who still looks damned good!), and the Director of Photography James Roberson. Finally, we get a theatrical trailer, a poster & still gallery, and an essay on the film by writer Brian Albright that’s well worth a read.

Final Ruling: Scream Factory once again shows us why they are the premiere DVD/Blu-ray label for genre cinema! Not only have they made a very old film look and sound fantastic, but they’ve loaded it up with a good number of extras and a second feature-length film! The only thing that could have made it even better would have been a Director’s commentary or interview, but sadly, Charles B. Pierce passed away back in 2010.

This is a definite must-own for horror aficionados, and worthy of a spot in your personal movie library. I am more than happy to award this disc: