This indie horror film from 1976 is filmed in a pseudo-documentary style. It gets a lot of facts half right and takes a lot of artistic license, but it’s mostly well handled for a low budget affair.
The film is based loosely on the crimes of a serial killer in Texarkana who was active in the 1940s, known as the Phantom Killer. The Phantom Killer is a perfect pre-Halloween slasher villain, hulking and indomitable, with a nasty sadist streak that reaffirms that he is enjoying what he is doing. He uses a gun several times (including in one of my favorite scenes in the film, where he goes after Mary Anne from Gilligan’s Island. That scene alone is worth watching the film for), but only when necessary or when trying to rapidly injure or finish off someone. Other times, he bludgeons and stabs people to death, hunts a woman with a pickaxe, and has a tendency to chew on the ladies.
Most of the film follows the various law enforcement trying to pursue him, eventually led by a tough Texas Ranger. The law enforcement officers who end up involved are all doing their best, but at times the movie ventures a bit far into the procedural, and the attempts at humor are really out of place. More than once things turned into a bad Dukes of Hazzard knock off, and the most offensive character is ‘Sparkplug,’ who is actually played by the director, Charles B. Pierce!
But when Pierce is off screen, the film is much more effective, such as his use of low-angle shots focusing on people’s legs to emphasize that the Phantom Killer could be anyone, with a repetition of a pair of shoes to emphasize when the killer is potentially present on screen. Admittedly, Pierce likes to show up at odd times in his movies. He also did it in his Boggy Creek movies. It didn’t work there either.
It’s a shame Pierce was inconsistent with his direction and included those moments of levity, but I guess he felt he needed something to pad out the film. It’s an effective low budget thriller otherwise. So long as you don’t let the attempts at slapstick bother you, The Town That Dreaded Sundown isn’t bad. Nor is the follow up from 2014 of the same name, though you probably ought to watch the original before moving to that since it makes numerous references to it.
As for whether it’s a good documentary, NO! No, no, no, don’t go into this thinking you’re gonna get an accurate portrayal of the Phantom Killer case. Hell, Pierce got sued by the brother of a victim over this movie, while city officials also considered a lawsuit. That said, it hasn’t stopped the town from embracing the picture; it’s been shown publicly for free ever year since 2003 as part of a movie marathon by the Texas Department of Parks & Recreation. You do you, Texas.