Retro-Review: The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

The Town That Dreaded Sundown, who could resist, the true story of a masked slasher who terrorized the town of Texarkana in 1946? I certainly couldn’t. I tend to have a love/hate relationship with horror movies based on a true story. On the one hand, I adore researching the history of killers and crime, those dark shadows that lurk in the fringes of our communities, imagination, and nightmares. On the other hand, I absolutely can’t stand how more often than not, a ‘true story’ is twisted and embellished for the sake of a catchy tag line. Real life is terrifying enough, if you know where to look. But I get it, people want sensational stories, blood and guts, and menacingly depraved killers.

“In 1946 this man killed five people…today he still lurks the streets of Texarkana, Ark.”

The 1976 film ‘ The Town That Dreaded Sundown ‘ was certainly sensational. Although only loosely based on actual events, that did not stop promotional efforts emphasizing the ominous tagline in posters and reviews, “In 1946 this man killed five people… Today he still lurks in the streets of Texarkana” (while yes, there are obviously liberties taken with the film version of this story, this tagline is still somewhat true.  The real ‘phantom’ killer was never apprehended).

    The narrator opens our film and sets the stage “the incredible story you are about to see is true, where it happened and how it happened; only the names have been changed.”

1946, the quaint town of Texarkana is looking optimistically to the future just months after World War II.  But wait, are you waiting for this tranquil american dream life be abruptly shattered by a crazed killer? Oh good, me too. And what kind of 70’s horror movie would this be, if at least one teenage couple didn’t have their ‘necking’ session violently interrupted with a brutal murder? Again, my thoughts exactly. Our first victims are a young , amorous couple parked on the local ‘lovers lane’.

TOWNTHATDREADEDSUNDOWNSuddenly, their romantic date night is interrupted by a tall figure with a bag over his head opening the hood of the car and ripping *something* out. Let me be clear. I am a woman, I drive (aggressively), and in addition I’m pretty self-sufficient. But cars? All I can tell you is, whatever wires he was fucking with were important ones, because the car wouldn’t start. He breaks through the windows, dragging the victims out to introduce them to their bloody end. Linda, the female victim, is as stereotypical as it gets. Screaming and screeching loudly, as the killer draws close. I just want to punch those characters, run you fool. But despite her damsel in distress moment, she manages to escape and is found on the side of the road.

    The police warn young lovers away from lonely roads, and continue their rounds in the hopes of catching the murderer. A mere 21 days later, Deputy Ramsey finds a man dead in a ditch, and the corpse of his lady-love tied to a tree. He catches a glimpse of a hooded man, who quickly escapes.

    Mustache gameWith this second attack on a young couple, the town spirals into a panic. The town sheriffs decide to call in for help from a Captain J.D Morales, a well-known and successful investigator. Captain Morales is partnered with Ramsey, with another officer, nicknamed ‘Sparkplug’ assigned as a driver. I. Loved. Sparkplug. He was such a bumbling, helpless idiot, with hilarious car chase tactics. When doing my background research, I found out that ‘Sparkplug’ was played by Charles B. Pierce, the director of the film. Learning that made me appreciate the film even more.   Ramsey develops a theory that the killer attacks every 21 days, and he is expecting the next attack to fall on the same night as a high school dance. His theory turns out to be correct, but despite extensive preparation by the police force that included decor ‘lovers’ stationed at various ‘lovers lane’ spots, the killer successfully strikes again. A young couple leaves the high school dance, we assume for some sloppy make-out sessions and dry humping. The bag headed phantom killer pounces and kills the boyfriend before he chases down the girlfriend and murders her (creatively…. with a trombone). I loved this scene, as he prepared his weapon in the dark woods.

   As the bodies pile up, someone has the bright idea to consult with a psychiatrist. I’m guessing crimefighters get HUNGRY, because for some reason the detectives decide to have this super confidential, top-secret, lets stop this serial killer meeting in the MIDDLE of a BUSY RESTAURANT. Don’t get me wrong, most of my life choices are motivated by food too. But come on. Wouldn’t you want to have this meeting somewhere a little more private, maybe in the police station? Especially as when Morales took over the case, he emphasized that he’d “appreciate it if no one gave out any information on this case from now on”. But back to the busy restaurant. The psychiatrist Dr. Kress presents his theories and suspicions, outlining a general profile of the killer, “This thing has become a game…. Makes him feel important. He knows exactly what’s going on in the investigation and you know nothing about him”. With these words, our eyes are drawn back to another restaurant diner with his back to us.  He’s been sitting there, eating quietly this whole time, lurking in the background, but now the camera is begging you to notice him. Come on guys, HE’S SITTING RIGHT BEHIND YOU.
The killer remains free as townsfolk pour into the police station and call endlessly with tips.  There are multiple confessions, petty criminals looking for some publicity by taking credit for a crime spree that has gripped a small town. But the killings continue.

  Does the super team duo of Ramsey and Morales, chauffeured by the accident prone ‘Sparkplug’ have what it takes to stop this mad man? Dun dun dunnnnnn.

I loved the The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Loved.

* Sparkplug: What a hilarious character, his clumsy antics add some comic relief to the horror.

* Characters- There was not a character I disliked. The casting was on point, the character growth and development felt real.

* Slow motion car chase Fast and Furious has NOTHING on this shit. Cars from the 40’s, horrible driving from sparkplug, flying cars, and the dramatic slow motion chase. Delightful.

 * Cowboy hats. Mustaches, Big cigars.