Unraveling The “True” Horror Of 1976’s “The Town That Dreaded Sundown”

phantom trombone

The Real “Phantom” Was Not This Crafty

“Based on a True Story” has always been an excellent marketing tool for films going back decades. From Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and Tobe Hooper’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” which both took their ideas from the actions of real life Wisconsin serial killer and cannibal, Ed Gein, whose life had little to do with the aforementioned films to Kimberly Peirce’s “Boys Don’t Cry” which brutally stretched the truth to make a gender hero out of petty thief Brandon Teena, Hollywood has always taken liberties with “true” stories to suit its own political and sensationalist gains. Most recently there has been a lot of controversy surrounding the Clint Eastwood biopic “American Sniper,” based on the memoirs of Chris Kyle, the Navy Seal who was certified as the deadliest sniper in US Military History. It is clear that liberties had been taken with the history and even the memoirs written by Kyle himself for the film version, which drew the ire of many critics, who claimed that the film was just an attempt at propaganda by Eastwood. The one thing we have learned from all of this is that the evoking of the term, “too soon,” may be the best strategy that Hollywood may have to adhere to when attempting the “Based on a True Story” film. Then again, if your machine can spin the negative press that results from dramatic license, it has almost always meant more to a studio in ticket sales, which is sadly why the tagline exists in the first place.

Such was the case in 1976 when American International Pictures decided to premiere director/producer Charles B. Pierce’s drive-in film, “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” in Texarkana, Arkansas, the very town where some thirty years earlier, a masked man began slaughtering people in what would be known as “phantom attacks” of mostly young lovers in the dead of night. Family and friends of the victims were all still very much alive in 1976, and so a very powerful magnifying glass was held up to construction of characters and scenarios of director Pierce’s film. A film that is widely considered, along with Bob Clarke’s “Black Christmas,” as one of the earliest examples of the film genre we now know as the slasher film.

The film begins with a teenage couple, Sammy Fuller and Linda Mae Jenkins, who, while parked on lover’s lane, are assaulted by the “phantom.” The phantom appears faceless in a way that would become too familiar to horror film fans for years to come: think Jason Voorhees’ hockey mask from “Friday The Thirteenth,” or Mike Myers’ “Halloween” clay face, or any other version of the phantom that we would see with knife in hand in late 1970s but with the added “bonus” of occasionally seeing the victim from the killer’s eyes, which would become one of the defining characteristics of the slasher film genre. This facet was nothing entirely new to cinema as that approach had been taken by legendary British director Michael Powell’s in his 1960 film “Peeping Tom,” except that director Powell’s little death trip through the eyes of his killer cost him his film career as its brutality was too hard to handle for audiences of his era. Despite Powell’s demise, this approach to horror would be the standard for the next decade, like it or not.

Adding to the horror of the film, Charles Pierce uses aspects of the real life attacks for “The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” and thus these scenes are still genuinely horrific but were severely augmented for the film as well. Murder victim Linda Mae Jenkins for example, is found having been “bitten and chewed on,” but that was not the case in the original killing it was based on and was an odd and unsubstantiated choice for Pierce to use that additional act to further his villain’s sadistic qualities. Where Pierce takes even more substantial liberties is in the death of the character, Peggy Loomis, who is murdered when “the phantom” ties a knife to the retractor of her trombone and kills her in a similar fashion as Mark Lewis, Powell’s “Peeping Tom” killer who uses a knife mounted to a camera as his weapon of choice. In the film, Peggy is assaulted with her boyfriend Roy while amorously parking, while the actual pair of Betty Jo Booker and Paul Martin were just friends and were shot to death. Multiple lawsuits were eventually brought against the film’s producers on a variety of issues relating to the unflattering depiction of some of real life victims. Even a lawsuit was started by the city of Texarkana against the ad campaign for the film which had as its tagline, “In 1946 this man killed five people…today he still lurks the streets of Texarkana, Ark.” Allthough director Pierce worked to remove the “still lurks” part of the tagline, it was still very present in the posters for the film.

For a “drive-in” film that was made for a mere $400,000, the cinematography and quality of performances of “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” is a cut above most of the entries that would be classified as drive-in worthy. The addition of veteran actor Ben Johnson, who appears just a few years after his Oscar awarded performance as “Sam The Lion” in Peter Bogdonovich’s “The Last Picture Show” adds much to the overall believability of the film. Though the over narration comes across as a tad ridiculous, and the humor injected in the narrative takes away from the overall tension, it is still a remarkably well-made horror film that still packs more than a few scenes of genuine terror.

Original 1976 Trailer For The Town That Dreaded Sundown

All this makes one wonder then, why was there a necessity to alter the real tragedy that had befallen Texarkana to create a more unbelievable horror story when the actual story was terrifying on its own? To create an almost documentary-style narrative, Pierce even went as far as including the dates of the actual murders on screen, but, alas, some dates were incorrect, further magnifying the oddly inconsistent commitment to the reality of the “phantom attacks.” It seems that Pierce’s desire to use the stylistic elements from Powell’s “Peeping Tom” and Bob Clarke’s “Black Christmas” outweighed the actual facts of this crime spree that occurred in 1946, leading to the strange deviations from the true story and ultimately doing a disservice to the people of that region who were still tied to the reality of those attacks. Though flawed both aesthetically and factually, “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” continues to stand as a key film that shaped the horror genre of the 1970s. Bizarrely, despite the initial negative reactions from the city the film makes its setting, it is screened every year at Halloween for free by the Parks and Recreation Department of Texarkana in the very park where some of the actual murders occurred.

I guess the “phantom” makes for a good boogie man these days, but I wonder if the good folks of Texarkana know that the real “phantom” existed and brought true terror to the town they call home.

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