“The Town that Dreaded Sundown” chronicles the real life reign of a masked serial killer who stalked Texarkana in the days following the end of World War 2.
Had the “Town that Dreaded Sundown” been released just two years later, it may have all been different. John Carpenter’s Halloween had yet to establish the slasher genre and its rules. Without this template, “Sundown” feels adrift. Part real life crime, part historical period piece, part slasher, part 70’s character driven drama. But while investing in all these themes at once, it manages to fail magnificently at the last point. The dialog throughout the film is spectacularly inept. Police speak only of the Phantom. The Phantom victims exist only to be killed. He is the sole concern of the town.
It’s a great missed opportunity. The opening narration sets up the conflict of readjustment. Soldiers were returning home en masse, their pockets filled with G.I. Bill money. “Sundown” completely abandons this concept. None of the characters make any comparisons to life under the threat of the Phantom to the life of warfare. Only one mentions wartime service at all.
All of the subplots and humor are entrusted to one character who is not up to the task. A Gomer Pyle type policeman for some reason given the job of chauffeur to Captain J. D. Morales (Ben Johnson), the hot shot Texas Ranger called in to track the Phantom.
But “Sundown” does have its strengths. For one, the film is beautifully shot. The costumes and cars build a convincing appropriation of the nascent days of post war America. Its work on par with Chinatown.
With the dialog being so bad, its the silent sequences that carry the most weight. A brief look into a perfectly realized high school dance, where the chaperones snicker as they spike their drinks to the beat of a student brass band invests the setting with believable character. The filmmakers should have just cut most of the dialog out of the picture.
Then there’s the Phantom sequences. “Sundown” takes some dramatic license with the Phantom, imagining him to be a playful in his sadism. As the bodycount increases, the kills get more elaborate. In particular a sequence involving a trombone. That attack left no survivors, so the film imagines the Phantom practicing on his victim’s instrument before fashioning it into a spear of sorts.
“The Town that Dreaded Sundown” may have slipped away completely if not for the Phantom. Friday the 13th Part 2 copied the Phantom’s dress to the stitch for Jason Vorhees. It may not look like much against Michael Myers or Vorhees iconic hockey mask, but the production milks it for a lot of dramatic effect. The rucksack that covers the Phantom’s head hangs loose, and when he gets excited in his tasks he breathes heavily. The sack flattens against his face and fills out again, like an air bladder. It’s surprisingly effective low budget effect.