The Town That Dreaded Sundown, 1976. 7/10

True crime story of the unknown 1946 Texarkana, TX serial killer. In this documentary-style film, many of the characters are various police officers on the case: Capt. Morales (Ben Johnson), Dept. Norman Ramsey (Andrew Price), Sgt. Mal Griffin (Jimmy Clem), Patrolmen A.C. Benson (Charles B. Prine), and Chief R.J. Sullivan (Jim Citty). Then there’s the victims: Sammy Fuller (Mike Hackworth), Helen Reed (Dawn Wells), Peggy Loomis (Cindy Butler), Emma Lou Cook (Misty West), Howard W. Turner (Rick Hildreth), Ray Allen (Steve Lyons) and Linda Mae (Christine Ellworth). Bud Davis plays The Phantom Killer.

There’s a narrator (Vern Stierman) to provide more than a little context: of early post-war small-town U.S.A., The Cold War, booming economy, etc. “The incredible story you’re about to see is true.” Here we go–a couple hanging out at Lover’s Lane, in a ’39 Ford coupe. Linda Mae hears somethin’. It’s a white-hooded creep; unfortunately, Sam’s car won’t start, so Linda Mae and Sam get whacked up, real quick-like. They’re found next day, barely alive.

At the hospital, we get the low-down on the victims, but no real clues. Then, back to the police station, where A.C. (‘Sparkplug’) gets a little nutty with a report of a “mangy dog. He’s yer loose-cannon right there. Three weeks after the Sam/Linda Mae thing, Norm goes to Texarkana city police HQ to see if he can get some back-up, but no dice. Patrolling back roads in his black ’39 sedan, he sees sumpin’. and hears a gunshot. There’s a parked ’36 coupe. Keys in it, but no people, and more shots. He suspects the “veehicle’s” occupants have been abducted.

Nope. been murdered. That’s Emmy Lou and Howard. A guy with a revolver walks up to a different car, but he’s able to drive off before Norm can squeeze off a shot. Anyway, Capt. Morales of the Texas Rangers gets on the case. Does he have a plan? “Yessir, I plan to catch him…or kill him.” Back at HQ, Morales talks about “The Phantom.” Strangely, Sparkplug will personally accompany the Captain. There’s a bumbling driving sequence which is kind of funny, but off-key. Especially since the narrator is over-the-top serious.

But now, some pretty good deception creates comedy as Morales has cops dress up like women to hang out like couples with other cops (civilian-dressed) in lover’s lanes. Sparky, naturally, is one of the ‘women’. A compensation is that he gets to do a radio sign-off with “up yers and out.” And, “You think I’m gonna let that sumbitch fondle me before I blow his head off?” It’s a relief when we get to the Class of ’46-’47 Prom.

Now this is cool: one of the parent/teacher? ladies minding the refreshments spikes the punch (only for herself, though). By contrast, the principal is not only boring, he talks like a Yankee. Meanwhile, quickly back with the police for some strategizing. Then onto Spring Lake Park with Peggy and Roy “just for a little while.” Uh-oh, the masked dude is lying in wait there. I guess no fake (police) couples have staked this place out. Man, it’s a pretty wild scene, as Peggy and Roy are actually driving away when the killer gets on the driver-side running boaerd and pulls Roy out if the car. He’s toast, and the car lurches into some brush.

Peggy stumbles away, but The Phantom catches up and grabs her. Roy tries to get lost too, but The Phantom’s got a revolver and finishes him off. He attaches the knife to a trombone, which, extended out by his blowing into the mouthpiece, stabs Peggy. That’s macabre stuff. “I want some evidence, you understand that?” demands Morales, at the scene. Conference at a restaurant with a psychiatrist “This has become a game to him.” It could be anybody–even the guy (“the murderous pervert”) we only see the back of, who just now pays up and leaves the place.

With a tip and a call, the cops are after Eddie Le Doux (Joe Catalanutto) who’s robbed a store, and after a carnival-thrill-show type of car chase (with yet another ’39 Ford) Le Doux professes to be The Phantom. Well, he ain’t. This, like some of Sparky’s earlier scenes, is played too broadly to be as effective as it could be. Now, it’s fixin’ to be summertime. By a grocery store we see a guy lean out of a ’36 Coupe with the tell-tale Phantom-esque boots. That’s all we see of him.

But, he’s apparently ‘made’ Ellen, and that night crawls up on their house. He pops Floyd right through a window, and then plugs Ellen. He’s dead, but she manages to get outside. He follows the blood trail, grabbing a convenient pick-ax. She hides in a cornfield; like the previous escaping female victim, however, she can’t disappear because of her bright outfit. Fortunately, a guy comes out of the neighboring house, and gets help. Ellen survives. It’s strange that the killer’s changed his m.o. from bludgeoning and stabbing to shooting.

A stolen car report comes in, a possible match to the killer’s. It’s the same car, but recently abandoned. The Captain and Norm go through the woods in pursuit, coming upon the Phantom who lurks in the distance. By the time they get close enough, he’s shielded by a passing train. They hit him, but he still gets away somehow. Slogging through a swamp–that’s smart–as the hounds lose his scent quickly. That’s about it. The narrator lays out all the possibilities: The Phantom drowned in the swamp, he was arrested for something else, or, he’s still out there.

Too bad the Sparky stuff fizzles out a lot of the tension and energy. The stakeout thing is funny, and it works. The car chase in itself is well-done, but does it have to end in a swamp? That said, the scenes click by fairly quickly. We go from the police to different sets of locals; even with the hokey stuff, this never drags.

One huge plus for authenticity was the veritable car show: how they came up with so many prewar cars is a miracle. Except for a small group of customs and hot rods (all modified), by 1976 cars of the ’30s and ’40s were just not seen anymore. The school dance and other indoor stuff was just about right too.

It’s not Pierce’s fault that his role was made so hokey, in his own way, he inhabited the hapless good-ol-boy thing decently. Johnson and Prine were pretty good too. A lot of the other performances were kind of stiff; that doesn’t matter so much with the nonfiction premise, though. All in all, a good account of the Phantom Killer. Most of the violence is at least somewhat hidden, and it’s not dwelt on. Very entertaining.

Farmermouse never saw so many ’39-’40 Fords in his teeny-weeny life. Critter heaven. So he gives The Town That Dreaded Sundown gets seven spiked punch bowls. 7/10.

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