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The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a 1976 horror film by producer/director Charles B. Pierce. Based very loosely on true incidents that took place just after World War II around Texarkana (Miller County), it was one of the first movies in the “slasher” genre. The film starred 1971 Academy Award winner Ben Johnson along with television stars Andrew Prine and Dawn Wells. The movie, considered a cult classic, made a huge profit over production costs. It was remade in 2014.
To form the basis of his fifth film, Pierce chose what were called the “Texarkana Moonlight Murders,” which took place throughout 1946 in Texarkana, Texas, though he represents them as occurring on the Arkansas side of the city. A hooded man who had attacked eight people was later dubbed the “Phantom Killer” by the Texarkana Gazette. The true-life killer was never identified or apprehended. According to the movie’s narrator, “The incredible story you are about to see is true, where it happened and how it happened; only the names have been changed.”
The film was shot in four weeks during June and July 1976. Locations are primarily around Texarkana, with a number of local residents cast as actors and extras. Other Arkansas locations were Garland (Miller County) and Scott (Pulaski and Lonoke counties), along with Shreveport, Louisiana, where a scene was shot in front of Pierce’s home.
Johnson starred as a fictional version of the Texas ranger who investigated the crimes. Wells, who had played Mary Ann on the television show Gilligan’s Island, portrayed one of the victims, and Andrew Prine played a sheriff’s deputy. In an interview, Prine stated that he wrote the last part of the movie himself because the script did not yet have an ending.
The movie concludes with officers chasing “The Phantom,” who escapes, though in real life the killer was neither chased nor identified. In a “movie-within-a-movie” touch, the shoes of the killer are seen at a later date in a line of people at a movie theater waiting to see the film The Town That Dreaded Sundown as it plays in Texarkana.
The ninety-minute movie’s real-life world premiere was held in Texarkana on December 17, 1976, in advance of its standard theatrical run beginning December 24. Being released two years before the 1978 slasher movie Halloween, it is considered one of the earliest in the genre.
The tagline for the movie posters stated, “In 1946 this man killed five people....Today he still lurks the streets of Texarkana, Ark.” Nervous city officials threatened a lawsuit to remove the offending line. Pierce was said to work with distributor American International Pictures to remove the reference to the killer still lurking in Texarkana, but the line remained on the posters.
The film received mixed reviews. It was popular as a drive-in movie throughout 1977 before being shown on television starting in 1978. It was later released on VHS and then Blu-ray/DVD. The movie was said to have cost about $400,000 to produce and earned around $5 million. In a tradition that began in 2003, a free screening of The Town That Dreaded Sundown is held each October near Halloween by the Texas Department of Parks and Recreation at Spring Lake Park in Texarkana, Texas.
A 2014 movie by the same name constituted both a loose remake of the original and a sequel, but it was not widely released. Starring Addison Timlin and Travis Tope, the movie centers upon the recurrence of murders in Texarkana sixty-five years after the original “Texarkana Moonlight Murders.” Indeed, the action in the movie starts at a drive-in screening of Pierce’s original film and features a cameo by Pierce as well as fictional son of Pierce (played by Denis O’Hare)—points that led Variety to dub the film as “tediously metatextual.”
For additional information:Lodge, Guy. “Film Review: ‘The Town That Dreaded Sundown.’” Variety, October 16, 2014. http://variety.com/2014/film/festivals/film-review-the-town-that-dreaded-sundown-1201330706/ (accessed May 3, 2016).
Mackintosh, Prudence. “Texarkana Murder Mystery: Has a Local Author Settled Once and for All the Identity of the Infamous ‘Phantom Killer?” Texas Monthly, December 2014. http://www.texasmonthly.com/the-culture/texarkana-murder-mystery (accessed May 3, 2016).
Presley, James. The Phantom Killer: Unlocking the Mystery of the Texarkana Serial Murders: The Story of a Town in Terror. New York: Pegasus Books, 2014.
“The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976)”. Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075342/ (accessed May 3, 2016).
“The Town that Dreaded Sundown (2014).” Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2561546/ (accessed May 3, 2016).
Nancy Hendricks Garland County Historical Society
Last Updated 5/13/2016
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