A flawed, but occasionally fascinating dramatisation of a series of real life murders that occurred in Texas in the 1940s. This proto-slasher is a sometimes uncomfortable mix of police procedural drama, comedy and creepy horror.
Texarkana in the months after the close of World War 2 was, like most of America, increasingly paranoid about threat from the Soviet Union but generally positive about the future. However, when a young couple are attacked whilst sitting in their car on Lover's Lane, by a heavy-breathing man wearing a sack over his head, it starts a wave of panic. Neither of them are killed, but are both badly beaten – and the woman repeatedly bitten.
However, the next couple are not so fortunate. Exactly 21 days later the Phantom – as he is now dubbed – attacks another young couple who have ignored the warnings from the police. By chance, Deputy Sheriff Ramsay (Andrew Prine) is out looking for the killer that night and hears gunshots. He finds them both shot dead, the woman tied to a tree. Narrowly missing him, the killer escapes.
Concerns widen as it becomes clear that a serial killer is on the loose. The police enlist the help of JD Morales (Ben Johnson) – called The Lone Wolf of the Texas Rangers. Still, even with his presence the police can't prevent another violent double murder after the High School dance. Would the Tekarkana Phantom ever be caught?
THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is probably best remembered for a kill that has rarely been topped in the slasher movie. If you've seen it, you'll know what I mean. One victim is tied to a tree, and the killer attaches a knife to a slide trombone and stabs her in the back repeatedly whilst trying to honk out a tune! Never in the annals of horror movies has a musical instrument been put to such a dastardly and ingenious use. Perhaps, needless to say whilst the actual murder happened a trombone wasn't part of it.
In real life, the identity of the Texarkana Phantom was never revealed, and the film doesn't try its hand at guessing who it is. Could it be a war veteran who just couldn't stop killing? Why did the murders suddenly stop? Could the killer still be out there?
One of the film's strengths is that the killer is genuinely frightening. Sporting the potato sack look long before Jason Voorhees (whose sartorial elegance in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 (1981) may well have been inspired by THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN instead of THE ELEPHANT MAN, as is often touted). His icy blue eyes stare out from small peep-holes, and he sucks the bag in and out as he rapidly breathes; his tense and hulking stance again much like the one Mr Voorhees was to take. His aggression and mental instability is palpable.
Perhaps the trouble is that the film's tone is so uneven. Even though the trombone murder is highly improbable it successfully walks the line between ridiculousness and the grotesque. However, the film's tension is reduced somewhat by diversions often into comedy territory. One character, called Sparkplug (Charles B. Pierce - also the film's director), is the film's comic relief – he is forced to dress in drag in an attempt to fool the killer and generally look like an idiot. However, it's when the film almost goes into DUKES OF HAZARD territory that the tonal shifts are especially jarring. The film also isn't helped by the decidedly variable acting abilities of its cast. However, the handsome production values and attention to detail authentically makes it look like 1940s Americana.
Not many other slasher movies were given the period flourish – most probably because of the added cost. Although, notably, Joseph Zito's brutal THE PROWLER (1981) opens with a prologue in the 1940s – and makes explicit the psychosis of a slighted war veteran, something that this film only hints at.
Overall, THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN remains interesting for preempting many of the conventions of the slasher movie that would become so commonplace in the next few years. And that trombone murder is still a show stopper!
female:2 / male:3
1) Male shot dead
2) Female tied to a tree and shot in the back
3) Male coshed and shot
4) Female repeatedly stabbed in the back with knife attached to a trombone!
5) Male shot in the head