Never under­es­ti­mate the lure of a true sto­ry when you’re try­ing to sell a movie to audi­ences.  The career of Charles B. Pierce offers proof of why this is such a good tac­tic: he took a Southern vari­ant on the Bigfoot leg­end and spun it into indie box-office gold in 1972 with The Legend Of Boggy Creek.  A few years lat­er he fol­lowed the true sto­ry tem­plate to suc­cess once again with a film enti­tled The Town That Dreaded Sundown — and it found him bring­ing mod­ern depic­tions of vio­lence and ter­ror into his old-fash­ioned style.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown takes its inspi­ra­tion from a string of killings that haunt­ed Texarkana dur­ing the first half of 1946.  The mur­der­er, dubbed “The Phantom Killer” by the press, attacks cou­ples in seclud­ed loca­tions and spaces out the killings by sev­er­al weeks to build fear and unease in the pub­lic.  Local law enforce­ment calls on Texas Ranger J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson) to head up the man­hunt.  Morales works with local Deputy Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine) to hunt for the killer as they the­o­rize about what dri­ves him — but this killer is as elu­sive and mys­te­ri­ous as he is lethal.

The result­ing film is a mix­es old-fash­ioned film­mak­ing tech­niques and a mod­ern depic­tion of vio­lence to dis­ori­ent­ing effect.  Pierce affects a vin­tage film­mak­ing style here: exten­sive use is made of nar­ra­tion to set up the sto­ry (just like The Legend Of Boggy Creek) and Pierce breaks up the story’s shocks with broad comic relief.  The lat­ter ele­ment hasn’t aged too well — the com­e­dy bits go on too long and their seem­ing self-indul­gence isn’t helped by the fact that Pierce has cast him­self as the comic-relief deputy at the cen­ter of all the­se comic sce­nes.  As the film pro­gress­es and the ten­sion mounts, the­se humor­ous beats real­ly get dis­tract­ing.

That said, it’s worth stick­ing with The Town That Dreaded Sundown because the major­i­ty of the film is quite effec­tive.  Pierce is effec­tive at cre­at­ing a creepy atmos­phere, mix­ing a haunt­ing score from Jaime Mendoza Nava with styl­ish scope pho­tog­ra­phy from Jim Roberson to cre­ate a moody back­drop for the Phantom Killer’s reign of ter­ror.  Low-key, sto­ic per­for­mances from Johnson and Prine lend the right note of grav­i­tas to the law enforce­ment ele­ment of the sto­ry.

Most importantly, the sce­nes involv­ing the Phantom Killer stalk­ing his prey are gen­uine­ly creepy and unnerv­ing.  Pierce drops all the old-fash­ioned niceties of his film­mak­ing approach in the­se moments, with the cam­era nev­er waver­ing from the vio­lence and the relent­less cru­el­ty of the film’s killer.

The key sce­nes in this area are a set­piece where the killer attacks and mur­ders a cou­ple fresh from their prom and a sav­age sequence where he wounds and chas­es house­wife Helen Reed (Dawn Wells) out of her house and into a corn­field after mur­der­ing her hus­band.  The first scene involves an unusu­al mur­der method that is famous amongst the film’s fans and the sec­ond is as bru­tal as any stalk­ing scene from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Toolbox Murders, with the effect height­ened by the fact that the bru­tal­ized vic­tim is played by a for­mer star of Gilligan’s Island(!).  Along sim­i­lar lines, the final con­fronta­tion between the cops and the killer is han­dled in a sus­pense­ful, styl­ish man­ner: this bit was a fic­tion­al cre­ation but gives a sat­is­fy­ing pay­off to a sto­ry that wouldn’t have one oth­er­wise.

In short, The Town That Dreaded Sundown remains an effec­tive seri­al killer docu­d­ra­ma and one of Pierce’s most mem­o­rable films.  Even if you fac­tor in the laps­es of humor and the fic­tion­al­ized ele­ments of the sto­ry­line, the film has a raw pow­er and a unique blend of old-fash­ioned tech­nique and mod­ern shocks that will get under the viewer’s skin.