I Have Never Seen ‘The Town That Dreaded Sundown’

By  · Published on October 20th, 2014

American International Pictures

Ashe never got to see a ton of modern classics from his youth, so we’re making him watch them all as a nostalgia-less adult. Check out the inaugural article for more info.

My Halloween journey continues. I was going to do a different film this week, but after I had so much trouble finding a copy of Monster Squad and looked to be in a similar situation with this one, I swapped with something that’s on Netflix right now for your viewing pleasure. Put pleasure in the biggest irony quote marks ever though, because this movie, well…

If you’re unfamiliar with the plot, it’s pretty simple. This film purports to tell the true story of The Phantom Killer – a real serial murderer who operated in Texarkana, an aptly-named city on the border between Texas and Arkansas, in the 1940s. I say “purports” because I actually did some research on the subject for an article I wrote a few years ago. To say they took liberties with the story is like saying that Inglourious Basterds took liberties with the events of World War II. It’s not even close, and not in the fun way (like with Basterds).

Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Like any historical movie has ever been all that accurate.

However, the film presents itself as kind of a docudrama (which would have been cool if that’s what it really was), complete with a deep-voiced narrator. (It also abuses said narration to give out information that the filmmakers chose not to relate on screen, one of the pillars of lazy writing.) Damn it, if you’re going to have a narrator, you better bring the facts. Those are the rules.

Those are minor gripes, though. My biggest complaint with the film is this: it’s about 30 minutes of plot and 55 minutes of pure filler. The movie wastes five minutes on a scene at the junior prom, where kids dance and some old ladies spike the punch. It also spends an inordinate amount of time on a character that I like to call Sparkplug the Idiot Cop. Sparkplug loses the keys to the cruiser! Sparkplug argues with citizens on the phone! Sparkplug is in a dress! Gosh, that Sparkplug! The strangest part is that Sparkplug was played by the film’s director, Charles B. Pierce.

Apparently the film he really wanted to make was about a bumbling cop story starring himself, but the whole Phantom Killer story just got in the way.

When a horror movie tries for comedic relief it almost never goes well, but this is some of the worst I can imagine, and I’ve seen the original Last House on the Left. But then it also wastes time by having characters say what they’re going to do before they do it, like a ten-minute scene where the sheriff is tracking the killer in the rain, which would be a two-minute scene if he didn’t stop to radio in every thought that popped into his head.

The actual scenes with The Phantom aren’t bad. They’re atmospheric and spooky, short of a scene where he literally kills someone with a trombone. Okay, there’s a knife attached to the end of it, but still, trombone death. I am serious. (And that made it into the remakequel.)

Ben Johnson cranks out a decent performance as “The Lone Wolf of the Texas Rangers,” at least when he’s not weighed down by goddamned Sparkplug. Most of the rest of the performances are junk turned in by local extras. Special shout out to the guy playing Roy Allen, boyfriend of the trombone-murdered woman. I’m sure he must have been good at something else in his life, because acting was not his thing.

I’m pretty mystified by why this is considered such a horror classic. There was little of redeeming value unless you make liberal use of the fast forward button.

For more from Ashe, check out Weird Shit Blog and his book, The Book of Word Records, available now!