It's just after World War II and Texarkana, a working-class town of about 40,000 located on the Texas-Arkansas border, is returning to status quo after soldiers have returned home and wartime rationing has ceased. Finding work and re-adjusting to everyday life are the biggest problems the townspeople face until one night in March when a man would begin a campaign of terror that would leave people all but trapped in their homes, afraid of the dark.
A young couple parked out on a lovers lane-type wooded road are suddenly accosted by a tall man wearing a white sack over his head. The hooded assailant smashes the driver-side window, pulls the boy out of the car, and proceeds to beat him nearly to death with some sort of blunt instrument. After this, the man does the same thing to the girl in the car- except he also bites her along her back, her neck, and her breasts.
The couple, nearly dead, are unable to tell the authorities anything about their assailant beyond the fact that he was wearing a sack over his head.
Three weeks pass and the man strikes again, only this time his assault on a couple out 'parking' has escalated to murder- he's beaten both teens to death. The people of Texarkana are rightfully fearful, and sales of door locks and guns surge.
The police are still baffled by the crimes. They've got no leads and few clues, so they bring in a Texas Ranger to assist with the case (insert obligatory Walker joke here). Unfortunately, the "police action" scenes are the ones that cause the movie to lose focus. There's a buffoonish local cop nicknamed 'Spark Plug' whose job it is to chauffeur the Texas Ranger. The thing is, you see, Spark Plug is a really bad driver! Ha ha haa! What could be less appropriate in the middle of a grim, gritty, violent film than Smokey and the Bandit-style car chases (accompanied by a horns-n-banjos soundtrack, of course)? What could be less appropriate than said car chases and an angry police chief who's always yelling "Spark PluuuUUUG!" when ol' Sparky screws up again? Hmm. Maybe a sudden appearance by Waylon Flowers and Madame- that would be less appropriate. At least Pierce didn't go that far.
The comedy continues as a sting operation is put into motion to catch The Phantom Killer. Officers are to be stationed in cars on deserted roads, posing as young couples fooling around. There were no females on the force in Texarkana in 1946, however, so you know what that means! Men in drag! Including, naturally, your favorite bumbling idiot and mine, Spark Plug. Oh, my sides. Mercifully, it's a short sequence.
The trap is a failure, however, as the intended quarry has found some real teenagers to kill: it's prom night. Despite the warnings of the police and the curfews in effect, a band member from the dance and her boyfriend decide to go parking. After some hot and heavy...sitting next to each other in the car, the girl decides it's time to go home. Her boyfriend reluctantly agrees and begins to drive away- at which point the killer jumps out in from of the car and grabs onto it. He manages to pull the boyfriend out of the car and beats him savagely. The girl attempts to escape by running into the woods, but she can't keep her big mouth shut and the killer easily finds her. He ties her up to a tree and seems to be deciding just what to do with her, when she starts yelling "Run!"- her boyfriend is still alive and is trying to crawl away. The dumb broad and her big mouth end up getting the boyfriend shot in the back.
The killer, having dispatched the boyfriend, turns his attention back to Big Mouth- and here begins one of the more bizarre sequences I've seen in a horror movie. The girl's trombone has ended up on the ground as a result of the scuffle in the car earlier. The killer picks it up, ties his knife to the end of it, and kills the girl by stabbing her repeatedly with his newly-fashioned trombone-with-a-knife-attached. I don't mean that he just uses it as a large, fancy knife- I mean he acts as if he's playing the trombone and every time he slides out the slidy thing- STAB! It's truly a what the fuck? sequence, yet it's also very disturbing. It's played completely straight, and the killer blows into the trombone so...so viciously- there's no notes coming out, he's just blowing into it frantically and stabbing her- and it's apparent that this guy is getting increasingly psychotic. It's also apparent that the trombone-with-a-sword-attached will be joining the football-with-a-sword-attached in the Final Girl Awesome Slasher Weapon Pantheon.
A prison psychiatrist is brought onto the case to act as a profiler- the police are still getting nowhere and the town is growing increasingly anxious. The doctor calls the perpetrator an insane sexual sadist...and while this sounds as if the killer would be a lunatic frothing at the mouth, the doctor stresses that most likely the man seems perfectly normal and functions as capably as any other citizen. Here, Pierce utilizes a wonderful cinematic device that sends chills up the spine. The men are discussing the case over lunch in a restaurant. As the doctor is telling the men that the killer could simply be anyone, the camera drops to the floor and pans to another table. We see a familiar pair of boots slowly walk away from the table and out the door. The doctor is right: The Phantom Killer is just another townsperson, not a monster you'd recognize right away. The idea that evil walks among us is a terrifying one, and it's often the way things play out in real life. Serial killers don't wear hockey masks over corpse-like faces as Jason Voorhees does; serial killers live in your neighborhood and dine at the same restaurants you do.
Director Pierce reinforces this idea throughout the film's final reel in several harrowing sequences. As a housewife (played by Dawn Wells- yes, Maryann from Gilligan's Island) is getting into her car at a grocery store, she smiles uneasily at a man sitting in a car parked next to hers. Though we don't see his face, it's obvious that he's staring at her and making her uncomfortable. No, we don't see his face, but we see his boots...
Later that night, as Dawn Wells and her husband are relaxing at home, the killer suddenly appears in the window, just outside. Unheard and unseen, he raises a gun and shoots the husband in the head through the window. He then violently breaks down the door to the house and shoots Dawn Wells in the mouth. Somehow, miraculously, she escapes out the back door and loses the killer- who's now armed with a pickaxe- in a cornfield. She crawls to a the safety of a neighbor's house and for the first time The Phantom Killer is thwarted.
Now that it seems the killer has expanded his modus operandi to include killing people in their homes, Texarkana retreats further into itself. Windows are boarded up and all nighttime activities have ceased. The entire town is at the mercy of a psycho with a flour sack on his head who continually eludes the police, the Texas Rangers, and the FBI...and he shows no signs of stopping his murderous rampage. If anything, he continues to escalate the violence.
The police finally catch a break when they find the killer's car (identified from an earlier assault) parked near the woods. While investigating, two cops spot the hooded man and give chase. The killer jumps across some railroad tracks just as a train approaches, putting the passing train between himself and his pursuers. The police fire their guns blindly and manage to hit the killer in the leg. By the time the train is gone, however, The Phantom Killer is gone, too.
Gone, and never heard from again.
This open ending will frustrate you if you're the type of viewer who likes things wrapped up in nice, tidy little packages. If you're like me, though, the mystery at the end will be a welcome one. Ambiguity, to me, is usually more horrifying and satisfying than a captured (or dead) killer. It's much like the ending to John Carpenter's Halloween, where Michael Myers simply vanished into the night. This time, however, the terror was real.
Did the killer bleed to death from his gunshot wound? Is his body somewhere far out in the bayou? Did he leave Texarkana altogether? Did he end up in prison, convicted of another crime? Or, in the most frightening possibility, did he simply ease his way back into society? No one knows what happened to The Phantom Killer. I'm sure it was a long, long time before the citizens of Texarkana stopped dreading sundown.
While the pace was occasionally slow, the picture was dark and muddy at times and the acting was mostly amateur throughout, I really enjoyed The Town That Dreaded Sundown. If it wasn't for the too-prevalent comedic aspects, I think this effort would be a noteworthy feat of low-budget genre filmmaking. As it stands, however, the juxtaposition of terror and comedy causes the movie to fall short of its mark, which really bums me out. Damn you, Spark Plug. Damn you and your antics! On the whole, however, it's worth checking out- especially since it's based on a terrifying true story.
For more information on the real-life Phantom Killer and the ordeal faced by Texarkana 60 years ago, check out this article in Court TV's Crime Library.