The Town That Dreaded Sundown
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Texarkana-based advertising man Charles B. Pierce shot his first film as producer/director in 1972 - a low-budget semi-documentary called The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972). The movie, concerned with several supposed true-life sightings of a swamp-dwelling Bigfoot creature, was filmed on location in Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas and featured many non-actors in interview segments and "Skunk Ape" attack reenactments. The film cost around $100,000 to make and was picked up by Howco International Pictures; upon release it became a surprise hit - especially at drive-ins in the South - racking up a reported $20 Million in box office receipts. Pierce returned to the semi-documentary form four years later and while The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) featured a bona-fide Oscar®-winning actor (Ben Johnson from The Last Picture Show ) and a more seasoned distributor (Sam Arkoff of AIP fame), the film was still a small, locally-filmed affair. It too performed well at the box office and is now considered one of the earliest examples of the "slasher" genre.
The Legend of Boggy Creek was considered quite frightening in its time, although it was released with a "G" rating from the MPPA. The "monster" attack scenes were bloodless though surprisingly effective; the low budget unintentionally contributed to the seedy, oppressive atmosphere. The same effect is in evidence in The Town That Dreaded Sundown, though this film features some cruel and bloody violence, earning it an "R" rating. Stern narrator Vern Stierman (reprising his duties from The Legend of Boggy Creek) sets the tone when he informs the viewer, "the incredible story you are about to see is true, where it happened and how it happened. Only the names have been changed."
A pre-credits sequence establishes the small town of Texarkana, which straddles the state line in the southwest corner of Arkansas, in the earliest post-war months of 1946. (Despite the low budget, a convincing portrait of a 30-years-earlier town emerges - not counting a few 1970s-era haircuts). On March 3rd, 1946, a young couple is necking on a local Lover's Lane when they are brutally attacked by a man (Bud Davis) cloaked in a rough flour sack hood. While the young couple is badly beaten, and the girl has been assaulted ("her back, stomach and breasts were heavily bitten... literally chewed"), the couple cannot give much evidence. Police Chief Sullivan (Jim Citty), Deputy Ramsey (Andrew Prine) and Sheriff Barker (Robert Aquino) have no clue who the attacker may be and warn the locals about parking on lonely roads at night. Three weeks later, the pattern repeats itself although this time the young couple attacked while parking is shot and killed. The townsfolk buy guns and new locks for their doors to protect against "The Phantom Killer," as the press dubs the criminal. The police get much-needed help when Austin authorities send a celebrity criminal investigator, Captain J. D. Morales (Ben Johnson) also known as "the Lone Wolf of the Texas Rangers," to take over the case. Morales takes a more active approach to the investigation, for example sending officers out to Lovers Lane past sundown to act as decoys. The Phantom continues and the attacks become more brazen and bizarre. In the film's most notorious sequence, the killer attacks a couple who had just played in a band at the local Prom; after the man is shot, The Phantom straps the girl to a tree, attaches a knife to the slide of her trombone, and impales her in the back while repeatedly and awkwardly playing notes on the instrument.
The script of The Town That Dreaded Sundown (by Earl E. Smith) sticks quite close to the known facts of the actual case; only some of the gorier details of the murders are elaborated upon. For example, the musical instrument of choice found near the scene of the murdered band members was a saxophone, not a trombone; it was found thrown in a nearby swamp and there was certainly no evidence that it was used as a murder weapon.
Pierce proved to be a quirky director; his otherwise straightforward dramatics in The Legend of Boggy Creek were undercut by folk songs featuring some decidedly silly lyrics. The seemingly unintentional comic relief was one-upped by the extensive intentional comedy in The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Pierce cast himself as Patrolman A. C. Benson, nicknamed "Sparkplug" throughout the film and prone to wacky cop shenanigans, like dressing in drag for a sting operation to catch The Phantom Killer, and ineptly driving along country roads (scenes punctuated by unfortunate rib-poking 'comedy' music in the score by Jaime Mendosa-Nava). The juxtaposition of such scenes with the unflinching realism of The Phantom's sadism makes for a jarring experience. The casting of one of the victim roles also held a surprise; the final crime shown is an unexpected home invasion and the target is a housewife played by Dawn Wells, well-known as the perky and wholesome "Mary Ann" from Sherwood Schwartz's ubiquitous Gilligan's Island (1964-1967) TV series. The filmmakers seem to take a rather perverse glee in showing Wells' character shot in the face, bloodied, and crawling in a muddy cornfield for help.
The New York Times sent Vincent Canby to review the film, probably not at a drive-in. Canby wrote, "If... the facts are true (only the names have been changed), then the phantom killer was actually a pair of unidentified male feet. Charles B. Pierce... shows us those feet, from the trouser cuffs down, when he isn't showing us a couple of police cars screeching around corners at 25 miles an hour, or an atrocity being committed by the killer..." Canby notes, "A couple of professional actors, Ben Johnson and Andrew Prine, head the cast, but the film looks nonprofessional in every other respect."
Writing in Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978-1986, Adam Rockoff acknowledges the proto-slasher status of The Town That Dreaded Sundown but has little else good to say about the film, calling it "benign and plodding." Rockoff notes the sensational nature of the true story, but adds, "somehow Pierce was able to take this inherently cinematic story and give it all the excitement of a police report." This assessment seems harsh considering the twisted nature of the killer depicted by Pierce and the unusually cold, clinical and sadistic nature of the attacks. As a throwaway drive-in artifact, Pierce's film lingers in the mind with several potent images that are not easily forgotten.
Executive Producer: Samuel Z. Arkoff
Producer: Charles B. Pierce
Director: Charles B. Pierce
Screenplay: Earl E. Smith
Cinematography: Jim Roberson
Art Direction: Grant Sinclair, Myrl Teeter
Music: Jaime Mendosa-Nava
Film Editing: Tom Boutross
Cast: Ben Johnson (Captain J. D. Morales), Andrew Prine (Deputy Norman Ramsey), Dawn Wells (Helen Reed), Jimmy Clem (Sgt. Mal Griffin), Jim Citty (Chief R. J. Sullivan), Charles B. Pierce (Patrolman A. C. Benson), Robert Aquino (Sheriff Otis Barker), Bud Davis (The Phantom Killer), Vern Stierman (Narrator).
by John M. Miller