In the annals of “unsolved mysteries,” one of the most celebrated murder cases that still invites speculation years after the unfolding of its events (because although a suspect was eventually incarcerated, his guilt was never officially established) is the “Texarkana Moonlight Murders”—a series of killings that took place in the titular border town (straddled between Texas and Arkansas) during February and May of 1946. There were eight victims (five killed) as a result of a horrific spree committed by an assailant who later acquired the nickname “The Phantom Killer.”
The Texarkana killings became the subject of a celebrated “drive-in” flick released in 1976, The Town That Dreaded Sundown. The auteur of this low-budget horror film was Charles B. Pierce, a Texarkana resident who started his own advertising agency shortly after moving there in 1969. Pierce had expressed a lifelong interest in filmmaking (having fooled around making home movies in his youth along with future producer-director-Clinton crony Harry Thomason), and in 1972 put together his first independent feature film, The Legend of Boggy Creek—a faux documentary about a Bigfoot-like creature allegedly running amok in Foulk, Arkansas. Boggy Creek was a surprise hit (particularly with the drive-in crowd), eventually taking in $20 million at the box office.
Pierce must have spent some of his Boggy Creek cash on Sundown—while it never manages to completely transcend its low-budget horror origins, it does have a bit more polish than Pierce’s debut film. (Sundown was distributed by American International Pictures—the gold standard in drive-in movie fodder.) The Texarkana hyphenate (director-producer—and yes, even actor) secured the services of Academy Award-winning actor Ben Johnson (The Last Picture Show) to play one of the major roles in Sundown, not to mention familiar names in Andrew Prine (The Miracle Worker, The Wide Country) and Dawn Wells (Gilligan’s Island). While Sundown was not the first entry in what eventually became the “slasher” film genre (there are earlier examples, notably 1974’s Black Christmas) it could be argued that it paved the way for features that followed in its wake (Halloween, etc.)…and it has even been suggested that Pierce’s style later influenced big horror movie hits like The Blair Witch Project (1999).
The Town That Dreaded Sundown is narrated in his best Reed Hadley-impression by Vern Stierman, who also handled the observatory duties on The Legend of Boggy Creek. Stierman informs us “the incredible story you are about to see is true, where it happened and how it happened…only the names have been changed.” Since I dare not risk the wrath of Our Lady of Great Caftan by pointing out that the narrative in Sundown plays a bit fast and loose with the actual facts of the case, I’ll simply point out that the plot somewhat mirrors the real-life events by revolving around a series of killings in the border town that have stymied the local constabulary, represented by Sheriff Otis Barker (Robert Aquino) and Police Chief R.J. Sullivan (Jim Citty). The decision is made to bring in a pair of fresh eyes on the murders—none other than legendary Texas Ranger Captain J.D. Morales (Johnson). (The Morales character is a fictionalized version of real-life lawman M. T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas, who in retirement served as a consultant on the radio/TV series Tales of the Texas Rangers, created by Stacy Keach, Sr.)
Morales, assisted by Deputy Norman Ramsey (Prine—whose character is based on Bowie County sheriff Bill Presley)—steps up the investigation with innovative-for-their-time law enforcement methods such as setting up decoy points (some of the police officers have to don drag to make these convincing, an amusing highlight in the film) to trap the Phantom Killer. There are several additional murders—one that takes place at a secluded farmhouse, with the husband of Helen Reed (Wells) being shot in the head by the assailant (Helen manages to escape her would-be killer despite having been shot twice in the face)—before Morales and Ramsey get a tip on a stolen car that’s identical to one Ramsey spotted earlier as he came upon two previous victims. The hunt for the car leads to a sand pit, and the Phantom Killer is spotted so the two men give chase. The Killer is shot in the leg during the pursuit, but before he can be apprehended a passing train impedes the progress of Morales and Ramsey to capture their man…and the Killer evades their capture.
I know it seems as if I should have issued a spoiler warning on this movie at the beginning—but truth be told, since the murderer was never apprehended the finale was pretty much open-ended; in the DVD commentary for Sundown’s release by Shout! Factory in May of 2013, actor Prine reveals that Charles B. Pierce assigned him the task of writing the last fifth of the film as a result. (The movie ends with narrator Stierman filling in a little background on the principals—how they fared after the events in the movie and their dates of death, when applicable—and he mentions that a movie [Sundown] was made based on the killings. We then see a group of people standing in line for the film…including the boots of the Phantom Killer himself—that suggestion came from Mrs. Pierce.) But just as 1997’s Titanic isn’t necessarily ruined if you know the ending (there are other things that sink that film—believe me), you can still enjoy Sundown on its own terms even if you know the particulars of the case.
The best thing about the film is Ben Johnson’s turn as Morales; Johnson was not what you would call a great actor by any stretch of the imagination…but he had enough charisma and presence to overcome his thespic handicaps; Ben might have snagged his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show (a role Jimmy Stewart foolishly turned down) but my particular favorite of his performances is as “Mister” in the 1975 western Bite the Bullet. Ben’s the classiest thing in Sundown—a no-nonsense lawman decked out (in the manner of the real-life Gonzaullas) in an impeccable white suit and ten-gallon hat who at times expresses a honest concern that the killer he’s after is smarter than he is. Dawn Wells’ role in the movie is fairly brief (she was supposed to work eight days but wrapped up her scenes in one-and-a-half) but Gilligan’s Island fans might get a kick out of seeing her on the run from a serial killer in a cornfield (Wells also appeared in the director’s 1975 film Winterhawk, which features Doris Day(s) regular Denver Pyle in the cast).
Sundown is a bit tamer on the gore than some modern movies—but its celebrated sequence involves the grisly death of one of the victims by trombone. Yes, you read that right—the Phantom attaches a knife to the slide end of the musical instrument, and kills a woman while attempting to channel his inner Glenn Miller. (This is one of the plot details with which Pierce took some dramatic license—while there was a musical instrument involved in one of the murders, it was a saxophone…and not outfitted with a knife.) For a low-budget 1970s movie, Sundown manages to capture a fairly accurate evocation of its 1946 time period (just don’t look too closely at some of the 70s haircuts). The only real debit in the movie is some unfunny comedy relief that throws the mood of the film askew; director Pierce shoulders the blame for this one because he plays a bumbling patrolman nicknamed “Sparkplug” who for reasons unexplained is assigned the task acting as Morales’ chauffeur. (There’s an extended sequence—complete with bucolic “comedy” music—in which Mr. Plug manages to get a police vehicle stuck in a swamp; I kept expecting to see the Duke boys being chased by Roscoe P. Coltrane about that time.)
For many years, the cult following of The Town That Dreaded Sundown had plenty to do with its limited accessibility; it had seen a VHS release twice in the 1980s but until its 2013 unveiling on DVD (though it did get shown on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ on two occasions), Sundown’s availability to its fans was mostly reserved to its yearly screening at Texarkana’s “Movies in the Park” festival held in Spring Lake Park. (The festival, which runs from May to October, traditionally features Sundown as the last movie on the schedule.) I’d recommend checking out the Blu-ray/DVD combo of Sundown because it’s paired with another Charles B. Pierce effort, The Evictors (1979)—which the director considered one of his best films. (There are also some bodacious extras on the set as well.)
As for myself, I had to make do with Sundown’s recent scheduling on Epix on Demand over the holiday weekend as part of the AT&T U-Verse “freeview” of the service’s premium cable channels. I watched the 1976 version…then braved myself for its “remake,” which had a brief (very brief) theatrical run in mid-October after appearances at film festivals in Austin, L.A. and London.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014) is really more homage than remake; directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon from a script by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Sundown 2014 uses the 1976 film as a starting point with the older classic being shown at a Texarkana drive-in as the modern plot begins. Two high school kids (Addison Timlin, Spencer Treat Clark) skedaddle before the film finishes unspooling and retreat to a Texarkana “lovers’ lane” for a little passionate necking. Life soon imitates art as The Phantom Killer begins to emulate the murders showcased in the earlier film, with Jami, the survivor of the first attack, taking it upon herself to research the unsolved case while the police (represented by Gary Cole and Blackish’s Anthony Anderson—as Texas Ranger “Lone Wolf” Morales) remain as stymied as ever. There are a good number of references to the original Sundown, and while the 2014 version showed some initial promise it eventually degenerated into your typical teen-slasher flick…its imaginative premise scattered to the four winds and an ending that I will not spoil for you except to say it earned four eye-rolls from yours truly.
Though I was disappointed by Sundown 2014 it does manage to tuck an ace or two up its sleeve; I’d recommend the eerie opening montage sequence (very well done) and there’s a few more recognizable faces in this one—Anderson, Cole, Edward Herrmann, Ed Lauter (in one of his last film roles) and Veronica Cartwright (though seeing Ronnie playing a grandmother only served to remind me of my own eventual mortality). Character actor Denis O’Hare (True Blood, American Horror Story) plays the son of celebrated director Charles B. Pierce…but the real Pierce, Jr. actually appears in a quick movie cameo by hizzownself as a diner patron. (Pierce, Sr. passed away in 2010.) But in the end, the 2014 version falls short of recreating the accomplishment of the original—namely, a drive-in throwaway that manages to be an entertaining little chiller, a standout in the limited oeuvre of a filmmaker that a character in the 2014 homage describes as “Texarkana’s Orson Welles.” Ivan-Bob says check it out.