A masked man, known as The Phantom Killer, is stalking and killing young couples who frequent the lover’s lanes in the small town of Texarkana in 1946. The local police call in help from all over the state to help catch the killer, but the bodies keep mounting up.
At first glance 1976’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown neatly fills the ‘mysterious masked killer’ gap in between 1974’s Black Christmas and 1978’s Halloween in the slasher genre. However there is some debate to be had whether The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a slasher film or not. I’ve seen folks refer to it more of crime drama, or a mystery. It certainly has many of the hallmarks of a slasher; the aforementioned masked killer, pretty young victims, bumbling cops, inventive deaths, a tension filled chase through the woods, spiky musical score and so on. It also has the genuinely unsettling fact that it is based on a true crime that was never solved. And not in the sense that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was very loosely based on the crimes of Ed Gein. (This is not to say that the filmmakers took no liberties with the real case, as they certainly did). In 1946 the town of Texarkana was terrified by a series of five murders, of mostly young lovers, who were killed by a hooded man who became known as the Phantom Killer. He was never caught.
The film is presented in a semi documentary format, with Vern Stierman as the narrator. A young couple, parked in a local ‘lovers lane’, have their make-out session interrupted by a man wearing a hood over his face (I would be staggered if the makers of Friday 13th Part 2 didn’t take inspiration from the Phantom Killer for Jason’s look in that film). The couple survive the attack, and the police are on immediate alert, warning the town to stay away from lover’s lanes and other secluded spots, although this doesn’t stop more killings. Frustrated by their lack of progress in the case, the police call in Captain Morales (Ben Johnson), a renowned criminal investigator. After a local high school dance, Morales sets up cross dressing policeman as decoys, hoping to draw the killer out (are we sure he’s a famous crime buster? It’s a ploy worthy of Chief Wiggum). His plan doesn’t work and two more people are killed. Morales is disheartened by the latest killings, and the police are kept busy dealing with the idiocy inside their own station and the town’s locals, who are lining up to either dob their neighbours in as the Phantom Killer, or to demand greater protection from the cops. One red herring and slightly stupid chase sequence later, Police Deputy Ramsey (Andrew Prine) and Morales receive a phone call about a suspicious abandoned car and they race to the scene. They track the killer, but only manage to wound him. The Phantom Killer limps off, and is never seen again. The killings stop, but the murderer was never caught, and the film ends as the narrator intones; “Texarkana today still looks pretty much the same. And if you should ask people on the street what they believe happened to the Phantom Killer, most would say that he is still living here… and is walking free”.
Written down like that the film seems to be the typical paper-thin plot of a slasher film. And the actual plot, once you take away the ‘real life’ aspect of it, is fairly transparent. And like other slasher films, it has some impressive set pieces, with the chase of a girl through the woods being particularly tense, amped up by the fact there was no music score playing so all you could hear were her frantic breathing and the sounds of the Phantom Killer closing in on her. It was a shame it cumulated in her death by trombone (yes, really), which drained the suspense out of the scene. Further silliness abounded in the police station, where the police, with the exception of Ramsey and Morales were basically portrayed as bumbling oafs. The most irritating of which was Patrolman Benson, played by Charles Pierce, also the film’s director, who was painfully unfunny. He should have stayed behind the camera, where he does do a decent job. The cross dressing ‘hilarity’ was greeted with a stony faced weariness. I didn’t find bumbling comedy cops funny in Last House On The Left, and I don’t find them funny here. It’s like the film wanted these two aspects (horror and comedy) featured equally but they didn’t gel well together. And then they try to add in a third aspect, Dukes of Hazzard type wacky car chases and music. This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy or recommend the film, I liked it a lot, just not all of the sums that added up to its parts. If this film was played straight, or toned down the comedy, or at least made it actually funny, it could have been a genuinely scary reconstruction of a shocking event.
So it is a slasher film? Despite its best attempts not to be (I enjoyed the documentary style, and thought the narration was well done), I would say it is closer to being a slasher than it is a crime drama, and very definitely closer to being a slasher than a comedy. It may not be a slasher as the term is now defined thanks to the Halloween and Friday 13th films, but it has enough elements (and originated a few) to qualify in my opinion. I haven’t seen last year’s Remake/Reboot but from what I have read it is much more of a ‘straight’ slasher than its predecessor. The Town That Dreaded Sundown, slasher or no, has certainly influenced enough of the films that followed in the 1970s and 1980s to have its legacy assured in the slasher cannon, whether it wants to or not.
Words: Felicity Burton