“In 1946 This Man Killed Five People…”
I was first introduced to writer, director, and actor Charles B. Pierce through Mystery Science Theater 3000 and a special little film called Boggy Creek II: and the Legend Continues. A personal favorite of mine, I once watched the Boggy Creek episode on repeat for almost an entire weekend. The low budget cryptid, backwoods atmosphere provided a comforting backdrop for an impending hurricane, lulling me into a lush campground sense of security even as I boarded up the windows.
So, there is something to be said for Charles B. Peirce’s down-home Texarkana brand of horror. The Town that Dreaded Sundown, in particular, is an underrated masterpiece. I’ve never heard anyone talk about it outside of Texarkana, where—up until 2014—the town held an annual screening of the film in Spring Lake Park around Halloween. They either have a serious dedication to their legend, or celebrate it like a local celebrity birthday, depending on how you look at it. Like the movie, the town-wide ritual has mixed reviews.
Now, I know Halloween is over, and I already did (read: failed) my horror film challenge. I’m a little late to the game with The Town that Dreaded Sundown, but in my opinion, it’s never too late to uncover a hidden gem.
The Original Town that Dreaded Sundown
Released in 1976, The Town that Dreaded Sundown loosely adapts the Moonlight Murders. In Spring 1946, a serial killer known as the Phantom Killer, the Phantom Slayer, and simply the Phantom, struck Bowie County, Texas, just outside Texarkana. He attacked eight people and killed five. There were plenty of suspects, but the real Phantom was never caught.
Solemnly narrated, The Town that Dreaded Sundown mostly sticks with Deputy Norman Ramsey (based on Bowie County Sheriff Bill Presley) and lead investigator Captain J.D. Morales (based on Texas Rangers Captain M.T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzuallas) as they attempt to catch the Phantom.
While the main thread of the film’s plot is factual, Charles B. Piece took a few creative liberties with the majority. The narrator states initially that only the names were changed, but much of the case details were fictionalized also; to a point where, when folks first saw the film, it was believed that Betty Jo Booker—one of five real victims—was actually murdered with a knife taped to a trombone. Never mind the fact that she played the saxophone. And that she was shot with a Colt .32.
As for imagery, there are a few scenes that blew me away, strictly cinematically. The use of slow-motion during a shootout with Ramsey, Morales, and the Phantom—during which the Phantom catapults himself over train tracks, narrowly missing impact with the train—comes across almost ahead of its time. Maybe I haven’t studied 1970s cinematography enough, but I have never witnessed a scene executed like that before; the Phantom running head-on towards the audience alongside the train, and then he’s shot in the leg and falls, all in slo-mo. Sure, there are scenes that went on too long and should’ve been cut, but this is not one of them. The effect is, in a word, exhilarating.
Just a Little Bonus:
1967-era Andrew Prine, who plays Norman Ramsey, has a rugged, Armie Hammer-like essence to him. A little something in the face of Andrew Tveit. He walks around in his Sheriff’s uniform, shirt collar unbuttoned, casually hooking his thumbs in his gun belt. I’ve watched this movie four times already mostly for that.
The Town that Dreaded Sundown (2014)
This is a unique entry in the annals of sequels. The Town that Dreaded Sundown 2014 version goes by the same title as the original, but it isn’t a remake. Rather, it’s a meta take on the 1976 film and the real-life Texarkana annual ritual.
]Addison Jayne Timlin carried the film as trauma survivor and determined high school detective Jami, who, alongside her date, is brutalized by a copycat Phantom after leaving a screening of the original Sundown. She takes it upon herself to find the copycat, digging up case files and newspaper archives from the 1946 murders. She does her own investigation to uncover not only the copycat, but potentially the first Phantom. For its credit, 2014 Sundown is a lot more willing to include factual details from the murders, unlike 1976 Sundown. This is likely a testament not only to modern horror films but modern police work. We know more about the murders now than in 1976 and are less afraid to exploit the gory details for entertainment.
Sure, the acting isn’t the greatest in some parts. It’s reminiscent of straight-to-video sequels, based on a horror movie no one’s really heard of. But, as a connoisseur of movies no one’s really heard of, I want to go all in for The Town that Dreaded Sundown.
I Can’t Believe the Same Guy Made Boggy Creek II
What’s interesting about this film is the inclusion of Chuck Pierce Jr.—real son of the late Charles B. Pierce—as a minor character. Portrayed by American Horror Story alum Denis O’Hare as “wasted, ragged-out and reclusive,” this fictional Chuck Pierce Jr. is a shock to the system if you’ve watched Boggy Creek II and know what Chuck Pierce Jr. is like. At least what he’s like as weedy, perpetually shirtless, Boggy Creek Creature Studies major Tim.
According to an interview with director Alfonso Gomez Rojon, he, Chuck Jr., and Denis O’Hare met to create the character, and O’Hare borrowed traits from the real Chuck Jr. He still lives in Texarkana, but hasn’t done any other film work besides Boggy Creek, so there is almost no information on who he is as an adult and not a 20-something. The mystery is striking, the character both intriguing and unsettling.
In 2014, the Texarkana Gazette gave the film a glowing review. They called the film a mix of “local history” and “classic horror,” praising Gomez-Rojon’s “exceptional use of lighting and scenic elements for mood creation as well as talented camera angling and scene shooting.” The article closes with a gently disguised critique, which I can confidently say I agree with: “While the Twin-Cities’ Interstate 30 water town touts Texarkana as being “Twice as Nice,” the 2014 version of Pierce’s original world may not necessarily be twice as good—but it certainly strives in that direction.”