The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a 1976 horror set in the Texas town of Texarkana. The film is based in a loose fashion on the Phantom Killer who haunted Texarkana in 1946. Charles B. Pierce’s thriller is one of the first in the wave of 1970s slashers, coming out just two years after Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s an odd beast of a film in that it’s quite violent but also filled with oddly set slapstick humour. The narration by Vern Stierman adds a documentary vibe to the film that heightens the reality factor.
Cowboy actor Ben Johnson plays the man charged with tracking down the elusive killer, who leaves the small Texas town dreading sundown. There’s a lot at play here and Pierce’s film begins in a way that is reminiscent of David Fincher’s 2007 thriller, Zodiac. The Town That Dreaded Sundown may not have the mastery of Fincher’s modern classic but they share a common DNA, in the same way that the elusive Phantom Killer, like the Zodiac Killer had an eerie similarity. Neither killers were ever captured and some even believe that they may have been the same person.
The stark violence and the quaint, old school filmmaking style in The Town That Dreaded Sundown makes it a film of contrasts. Some of the performances may be jarring but Charles B. Pierce’s film is an interesting example of the horror genre before it became franchised in the 1980s. Speaking of sequels, Pierce’s film got a belated follow-up/remake in 2014. That film had a clever meta riff on Pierce’s film, using the original film’s existence as a stepping off part, and incorporating it into the narrative. However, that’s another story entirely.