The Town That Dreaded Sundown
|The Town That Dreaded Sundown|
|Directed by||Charles B. Pierce|
|Screenplay by||Earl E. Smith|
|Narrated by||Vern Stierman|
|Music by||Jaime Mendoza-Nava|
|Editing by||Tom Boutross|
|Studio||Charles B. Pierce Film Productions, Inc.|
|Distributed by||American International Pictures|
|Running time||86 minutes|
|Box office||$5 million|
The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a low budget 1976 American independent horror film by producer and director Charles B. Pierce who also co-stars as a bumbling police officer named A.C. Benson, also known as "Sparkplug". Pierce's fifth film is narrated by Vern Stierman who had previously narrated Peirce's 1972 film The Legend of Boggy Creek. Ben Johnson stars as Captain J.D. Morales, the fictionalized version of real-life Texas Ranger Captain M. T. "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas. Dawn Wells (Mary Ann of Gilligan's Island) appears as one of the victims. Cindy Butler (Pierce's wife at the time) plays Peggy Loomis, the trombone victim. The Phantom is played by Bud Davis who later worked as stunt coordinator on films such as Forrest Gump, Cast Away, and Inglourious Basterds. The film was mostly shot around Texarkana, and a number of locals were cast as extras. The world premiere was held in Texarkana on December 17, 1976 before its regular run in theaters on December 24. The film is a very early example of a slasher film, having been released two years before Halloween (1978), and just two years after Black Christmas (1974), widely considered one of the first of the genre.
The film is somewhat loosely based on the actual crimes attributed to an unidentified serial killer known as the Phantom Killer; it claims that "the incredible story you are about to see is true, where it happened and how it happened; only the names have been changed." The actual Phantom did attack eight people between February 22, 1946 and May 3, 1946 in or near the town of Texarkana, Texas, which is on the border of Texas and Arkansas. Most of the murders occurred in rural areas just outside of Texarkana, in Bowie County, Texas, while the film has them occurring in Arkansas. However, the general outline of the murders largely follows the reality, with mostly minor artistic license taken. As in the film, the real killer was never identified nor apprehended.
The film is loose enough with the facts that one family member of a victim filed a lawsuit in 1978, over its depiction of his sister. The fabricated facts in the film have also caused rumors and folklore to spread for generations around Texarkana. The film's tagline alleges that the man who killed five people "still lurks the streets of Texarkana, Ark.", causing officials of that neighboring city to threaten Pierce over the ads in 1977; however, it remained on the posters. A remake with the same name is set to be released in 2014.
Before the "Phantom-attacks", which occurred about eight months after World War II in 1946, Texarkana was pleasant and people were preparing for a good future. On Sunday night, March 3, Sammy and Linda Mae Jenkins parked on a lovers' lane. While there, the hood of the car is suddenly raised up, then the hood closes and a masked man with holes cut out for the eyes is seen holding wires he yanked from the engine, keeping the car from starting. While Sammy tries starting the car, the man breaks his window and pulls him out, cutting him on the broken glass. The man then gets inside the car with Linda.
The next morning, Linda is found on the side of the road barely alive. While at the crime scene, Deputy Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine) gets on the police radio and explains that both victims are still alive. He leaves a message for Sheriff Barker to meet him at Michael-Meagher Hospital. At the hospital, Sheriff Barker is told by the doctor that Linda was not raped but that her back, stomach and breasts were "heavily bitten; literally chewed." At the police station, Barker suggests to Police Chief Sullivan to warn teens and college students from parking on lonely roads.
On March 24, while investigating a lovers' lane in heavy rain, Ramsey hears gunshots and finds Howard W. Turner dead in a ditch and the corpse of his girlfriend, Emma Lou Cook, tied to a tree. Ramsey spots the hooded man getting into a car and driving off. The town is now in fear, selling out of guns and weapons, and buying locks, deadbolts, and safety chains. Sheriff Barker calls in help and tells Ramsey they are getting the most famous criminal investigator in the country, the "Lone Wolf" of the Texas Rangers, Captain J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson). After arriving, Morales explains he'll be in charge of the investigation and calls the unidentified attacker a phantom. Ramsey is assigned to assist Morales, and Patrolman A.C. Benson "Sparkplug" (Charles B. Pierce) is to be his driver.
At the barber shop, Ramsey explains to Morales his theory that the Phantom attacks every 21 days, convincing him that the next attack will happen two days later on April 14. Morales prepares for the attack by setting up decoys with male officers pretending to be lovers, having some dress as women. On the night of April 13, during the high school prom, the decoys are set up on lovers' lanes on the edges of town where the attacks occurred. After the dance, early Sunday morning, April 14, trombone player Peggy Loomis (Cindy Butler) leaves the dance with her boyfriend Roy Allen and goes to Spring Lake Park, which is in the middle of town, despite her worries about the Phantom Killer. After parked there for a while, she realizes she is out too late and convinces Roy to take her home. While driving off, the Phantom jumps on the driver's door and pulls Roy out of the car, causing Peggy to wreck. She gets out of the car and sees the Phantom beating Roy. She screams and runs off but the Phantom catches her and ties her hands around a tree. Roy awakens but is shot to death while trying to escape. The Phantom picks up Peggy's trombone and ties a pocket knife to the instrument's sliding piece. He then stabs and kills her while "playing" the instrument.
Morales and other officers meet up with Dr. Kress (Earl E. Smith), a psychiatrist, at a restaurant where he explains that the Phantom is a sadist with a strong sex drive between the ages 35 and 40 and is highly intelligent. He also explains that he may never be caught and that the Phantom knows what is going on with the investigation while the police know almost nothing about him and that he could be living as a normal citizen. When Morales asks if he will continue to attack on schedule, Dr. Kress says he'll probably change it due to the increase of law enforcement. The shoes of the Phantom are then shown: the killer is even then sitting at a nearby table, listening to their conversation.
At the station, a man named Johnson explains he was robbed and forced to drive a man to Lufkin at gunpoint. While on the road, Ramsey receives a report about an armed suspect. When they approach the location, the suspect drives off and is chased down. Johnson identifies the suspect as the one who robbed him. The suspect, Eddie LeDoux, is a car thief and tries acting innocent before falsely confessing to being the Phantom. Morales is not convinced.
On May 3, Helen Reed (Dawn Wells) is seen by the Phantom leaving a grocery store. At home that night, Helen asks her husband Floyd, who is sitting in front of the window in his armchair, if he hears somebody walking outside. After he says he does not, the Phantom walks up to the window and shoots Floyd in the back of the head. Helen inspects and sees Floyd dying. As she uses the telephone to call police, the Phantom breaks through the screen door and shoots her. She runs out of the house while the Phantom inspects Floyd's body. The Phantom follows her through a cornfield with a pickaxe but runs off when she gets help at a nearby house. The town panics and boards up their houses.
One day while out driving, Morales and Ramsey receive a report of a stolen car which matches the description of the one Ramsey saw on the night of the murders of Turner and Cook. They arrive at the scene and learn about a sand pit not far away. Thinking that the Phantom will make an attack on someone there, they go investigate it and find him. Morales shoots at him but misses, causing him to run off into the woods. They chase after him but he escapes by jumping past a moving train. Morales and Ramsey shoot underneath the train, hitting the Phantom in the leg after several attempts. The Phantom escapes while they wait for the train to pass. They continue their search for him but never find him.
- Ben Johnson as Captain J.D. Morales, based on the lead investigator, Captain of Company B Texas Rangers, M. T. "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas.
- Andrew Prine as Deputy Norman Ramsey, a fictional character slightly based on Bowie County Sheriff Bill Presley.
- Dawn Wells as Helen Reed, in the role of real-life victim Katie Starks.
- Director Charles B. Pierce as Patrolman A.C. Benson ("Sparkplug"), a comic relief fictional character.
- Bud Davis as The Phantom.
Filming began on Monday, June 21, in the very hot summer of 1976 for about four weeks. Locations included Scott, Arkansas, Shreveport, Louisiana, Garland City, Arkansas and Texarkana, Texas. The last scene filmed was the first attack, which was shot in front of Pierce's home in Shreveport. About 19 Texarkana locals starred in the film along with several extras.
Pierce called Dawn Wells on July 8, 1976 to star in his film. She arrived by plane in Texarkana before noon the next day. She stayed in Texarkana for six days but completed her scenes in the first two. While filming the cornfield scene, Wells was almost attacked by a bulldog, but the crew scared it away by shooting at it. Wells wanted to talk to the real-life survivor of her role, Katie Starks, but Katie refused. The Town That Dreaded Sundown was Wells' fourth film and her second time working with Pierce. During her stay, she did not read the script. She said that was the way she wanted it. "Acting-wise, it's an extremely emotional role. I didn't want to pattern my interpretation after anything. I wanted to go on my own feelings," she explained. Being shot was a new experience for the actress. "They planted a charge in the receiver, so I was standing there holding the phone, shaking, expecting the receiver to blow up in my face."
Andrew Prine wrote the last fifth of the film because it had no ending. Both he and Ben Johnson were hungover while filming the train scene after partying the night before. During the rain scene with Ramsey, a snake made its way on the set. Crew members were yelling at Andrew that there was a moccasin, but Prine wanted to finish his scene without re-shooting, so the crew killed the snake afterwards.
The film was released theatrically in the United States by American International Pictures in December 1976, and internationally in Sweden (1977), West Germany (1978), and the Philippines (1979). It was played at drive-ins until the end of 1977 and made its television appearance by June 1978. It was released on VHS in 1983 by Warner Home Video who then re-released it in 1988. Good Times Video also released it on VHS on May 15, 2001. In 2012, a widescreen version of the film was shown on two different occasions (January 20 and September 21) on the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) cable channel. It then finally had a digital release on May 21, 2013 when Shout! Factory released it on a Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack including Charles Pierce's The Evictors (1979).
Larry Fisher, a film critic for the Delta Democrat-Times, gave the film a three star rating out of five. He said Ben Johnson gave a superb performance as Captain J.D. Morales, and that "Although the picture lacks a strong ending, Pierce does one of the most credible jobs of engineering the tense, horrifying murder scenes." Mark Melson, Shreveport Times Amusement editor, claimed that it "may prove interesting to some viewers for one reason or another" but was "ultimately unsatisfying."
|"I've been accused of going a little too far off the deep end with that trombone scene, but it worked. When that picture played opening night in Texarkana, a lot of people were there who had grown up during that time. When that trombone scene was over, you could've heard a pin drop. I'm telling you, everybody was just frozen."|
|— Charles B. Pierce on the "trombone scene"|
William Whitaker of the Abilene Reporter-News gave the film a negative review, stating, "where I was expecting a dramatic retelling of the mysterious case concerning the phantom killer and his bizarre murders, I was greeted with an extremely uneven picture, collapsing into the most sickening, blood-weltering scenes one minute and then lapsing into some incredibly bad comedy relief the next." He continued, "Such vivid contrasts in the film's approach to its subject lead to its downfall. Any effect the disgustingly boring and extremely brutal murder scenes have go to waste seconds later when director Charles B. Pierce leads the picture into some of the type of poor comedy relief that one is used to seeing in budget pictures of the '60s. As a result, the film is unable to conjure up any mood or suspense." He concludes with, "All in all, the picture is an unpleasant little film and Pierce, after going overboard on the blood and gore scenes, never seems to be able to decide as to how serious the picture should be," and that "both mature and immature minds should avoid the film." A reporter in El Paso, Texas gave it a mixed review, writing that "this mixture of humor with fact saved 'The Town...' as it wakes the audience when things begin to lag." He goes on to write, "All things considered, the movie is entertaining and would appeal to those who savor unsolved murder mysteries."
Scott Weinberg from FEARnet gave it a positive review by claiming that it is, "Arguably the most accomplished feature from the late Charles B. Pierce," and "while the movie offers a slightly stodgy 'voice-over' narration and some moments that seem plucked straight out of '1970s police procedural 101', including a few painful moments of cop-related comic relief, it also delivers some legitimately effective atmosphere, several cool character actors doing fine work, and a handful of sincerely creepy moments."
Bloody Disgusting gave the film five "skulls" with a review by Patrick Cooper explaining that it is "a hugely entertaining atmospheric thriller," and that "the only parts that fumble a bit are the regrettable comedic moments... these well-intentioned bits sharply interrupt the serious ambiance of the film, but at least they're few and spaced far enough apart that they don't ruin the whole thing."
At the beginning of the film, it states that the first attack occurred on Sunday, March 3. In real life, the attack happened on Friday, February 22. Jimmy Hollis (portrayed as Sammy Fuller) was not pulled out of the window. The girl, Mary Jeanne Larey (portrayed as Linda Mae Jenkins) was told to run. She was then chased down and sexually assaulted with the attacker's gun. She soon escaped and received help at a house. In the film, the doctor claimed that she was bitten and chewed, but Mary Larey only had a cut on her head from being beaten.
The next attack in the film claims that it happened on Saturday, March 24, but March 24 in 1946 was on Sunday. In the film, Howard Turner and his girlfriend, Emma Lou Cook, were found dead outside of the vehicle. Emma Cook was shown tied to a tree with bite marks. In real life, both victims were found inside of the vehicle shot to death. The character Deputy Ramsey was patrolling the area and found the bodies. Afterwards, he sees the Phantom getting into a car and leaving. On the real morning of March 24, a passing motorist spotted a car and found the bodies of Richard Griffin and Polly Ann Moore inside before calling the authorities. By the time the officers were on the scene, the killer was long gone.
The film states that locals soon started buying guns and locks, but this did not happen until two months later in May. The characters in the film then brought in Captain J.D. Morales of the Texas Rangers. Truthfully, "Lone Wolf" did not come to Texarkana until after the second double-murder near Spring Lake Park. The film has Morales naming the killer a phantom, but the naming of the killer did not come until after the murders in April by the executive editor of the Texarkana Gazette. The film then shows a high school prom with the character Peggy Loomis playing a trombone. The officers were setting up decoys in an attempt to capture the Phantom. Betty Jo Booker, who played saxophone (not a trombone) was playing at a VFW (not a prom) and officers did not set up decoys until after her and her friend, Paul Martin's murder. In the film, Peggy and Roy are a couple, but Booker and Martin were only friends in real life. She and Martin were shot to death and her saxophone was missing for six months. In the film, Deputy Ramsey collects Peggy's instrument for evidence.
In the film, Helen Reed sees the attacker before being shot, but Katie Starks was shot through the same window as her husband and did not see her attacker until he tried crawling through the kitchen window. Mrs. Starks ran out of the house but wasn't chased. At the end of the film, the officers chase The Phantom and shoot him in the leg, but the real Phantom was never chased or shot.
In February 1977, Texarkana city officials voted to file a lawsuit against the ad campaign. When city officials visited Washington, D.C., they were kidded about the film's tagline which states, "In 1946 this man killed five people...today he still lurks the streets of Texarkana, Ark." Mayor Harvey Nelson explained, "The ad is too much; that's just not true. There's objection that this whole thing will be spreading fear in the community. There are relatives of the victims still living here, and this is very unpleasant to them." Pierce worked with American International Pictures to remove the "still lurking" statement, but it remained on the posters.
In 1978, Mark Melton Moore, the brother of real-life victim Polly Ann Moore, took Pierce to court for $1.3 million for invading his privacy. He claimed his sister, who was portrayed as Emma Lou Cook in the film, was depicted "as a high school dropout and a woman with loose and low morals; when in fact none of such was true." In real life, Polly Ann Moore graduated high school at the age 16. The court denied his appeal in 1979. Mr. Moore filed again in 1980 to the Texas Supreme Court. The 6th Court of Civil Appeals at Texarkana agreed again that the film producers did not invade his privacy and that he was not entitled to any money.
On March 15, 1978, Gerald Gedrimas, a teenager, shot and killed his high school friend James Grunstra. In court, Gedrimas stated that he thought of his plan to be Jesse James while watching The Town That Dreaded Sundown.
In Texarkana (where the story is based), this film is shown to the public at Spring Lake Park near Halloween. It is the last film shown for "Movies in the Park", which plays a film on each Thursday during May and October. The showing of the film, which has been a tradition since 2003, is a free event sponsored by The Texarkana, Texas Department of Parks & Recreation.
In popular culture
The character, Jason Voorhees of Friday the 13th fame, wears a bag over his head much similar to the Phantom's in the 1981 film Friday the 13th Part 2. The Town That Dreaded Sundown is mentioned by a character in the 1996 film Scream. In Seven Psychopaths (2012), a short scene shows a couple killing the Phantom similar to the one in this film.
- Eye of the Beholder, interview with cinematographer James Roberson
- Richard Nowell, Blood Money: A History of the First Teen Slasher Film Cycle Continuum, 2011 p 257
- Texarkana Gazette, Friday, December 24, 1976
- Texarkana Gazette, Saturday, December 18, 1976
- The Phantom of Texarkana by Brian Albright
- Northwest Arkansas Times, Thursday, June 17, 1976, page 7
- The Camden News, Wednesday, December 8, 1976, page 3
- Survivor Stories, interview with Dawn Wells
- Texarkana Gazette, Sunday, July 18, 1976
- Small Town Lawman, interview with Andrew Prine
- IMDB The Town That Dreaded Sundown release dates
- The Kokomo Tribune, June 29, 1978, page 30
- The Burning and The Town That Dreaded Sundown: Blu-ray/DVD Cover Art and Release Details | Daily Dead
- The Delta Democrat-Times, January 2, 1977, page 33
- The Lawton Constitution, January 4, 1977, page 7
- Abilene Reporter-News, January 30, 1977, page 26
- Prospector, February 1, 1977, page 14
- Scott Weinberg's (FEARnet) review of The Town That Dreaded Sundown
- Patrick Cooper's (Bloody Disgusting) review of The Town That Dreaded Sundown
- Texarkana Gazette, Sunday, February 24, 1946, front page
- Texarkana Gazette, Monday, March 25, 1946, front page
- Texarkana Gazette, Saturday, May 11, 1946, front page
- Texarkana Daily News, Monday, April 15, 1946, front page
- Texarkana Gazette special limited edition tabloid The Phantom Killer at 50: A Retrospective, page 16
- Texarkana Gazette, Friday, October 25, 1946, front page
- Texarkana Gazette, Saturday, May 4, 1946, front page
- The Paris News, Thursday, January 10, 1980, page 3
- The Texarkana Moonlight Murders: The Unsolved Case of the 1946 Phantom Killer by Michael Newton, chapter 11
- Texarkana Gazette, Saturday, October 31, 2009, page 2A
- Kit, Borys; Goldberg, Lesley (Jan 17, 2013). "Ryan Murphy and Jason Blum Teaming Up for MGM's Remake of 'The Town That Dreaded Sundown'".
- The Town That Dreaded Sundown at the Internet Movie Database
- The Town That Dreaded Sundown at Rotten Tomatoes
- The Town That Dreaded Sundown at Bloody-Disgusting