During the spring and summer of 1946, a hooded phantom stalked the lover’s lanes of sleepy Texarkana, Arkansas. The Phantom struck every twenty-one days despite a massive manhunt by state and federal officials. By the end of the summer, the masked killer had claimed five lives and left three survivors with deep physical and emotional scars. No suspect was ever apprehended. Some say the killer still walks the streets of Texarkana…
This Southern-Fried slasher from AIP and director Charles B. Pierce scared up business on the drive-inn circuit for years. The Town That Dreaded Sundown should be viewed as an early experiment before other directors mastered the slasher formula. Pierce combines elements from documentaries, police dramas, car chase flicks, and Don Knotts movies in this slasher. This bizarre concoction doesn’t always work and one wishes Pierce had added more stalk-and-slash bits to the recipe. Still, the stalking scenes are very suspenseful and some of the murders are pretty damn brutal.
The cast of TTDS. is both a strong point and weakness. Before battling a slasher in Terror Train, the great Ben Johnson hunted the Phantom killer. Johnson brings toughness and credibility to the character of Capt. J.D. Morales. Andrew Prine’s charisma gives his character more depth than the script. Dawn Wells, yes the one from Gilligan’s Island, shows she has the acting chops to make it as a scream queen. Wells, still very beautiful, has the best stalking sequence in the film. Sadly, the rest of the victims, police, and town folk don’t measure up. Some obscure their lines by talking away from the camera. And Pierce gives himself way to much screen time as Spark Plug, a comic relief deputy.
Special attention should be given to veteran stuntman Bud Davis for bringing the Phantom to life. We only see Davis’s eyes, but they are cold and cruel like a rattle snake’s. Davis has no lines and his features are obscured by a white hood but we know the killer is one grade A badass by watching his movements. The Phantom oozes madness and menace while hunting young couples on lover’s lane. If you love watching stuntmen portray slash happy maniacs, then check out Davis in TTDS.
The makers of TTDS claim the story is based on a real series of murders that stunned Texarkana in the 40’s. One wonders if writer Earl Smith was inspired by real life or reel life since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre made the same claim. While not a perfect slasher, genre fans should still seek out TTDS. Be patient with slow-mo car chases and Hee-Haw trappings and you’ll find some nice slasher material. Try not to flinch during the death by musical instrument scene.