The Curator of Schlock #168 by Jeff Shuster
The Town That Dreaded Sundown
Beware of men who wear burlap sacks on their heads.
I figured I’d do another slasher movie this week, not because I’m a particular fan of the genre, but because I know how some people get into a tizzy over slasher movies. We aim to make you uncomfortable her at The Museum of Schlock and can think of no better way than showcasing cinema featuring mask killers carving up victims in unusual ways. Here’s one that TCM must have aired during the wee hours of the morning back in October: 1976’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown, from director Charles B. Pierce.
The movie starts out with a super serious narrator declaring that the following story is true. This makes me uneasy. How am I supposed to enjoy the fake massacre if I know it’s real people? That’s just perverted. Anyway, this true story takes place in 1946 in the town of Texarkana, Arkansas. There’s a killer on the loose targeting couples parked in lovers’ lane hotspots. He’s known as The Phantom, but really he’s just a husky guy in overalls with a burlap sack covering his head. Not much of an imagination, buddy.
So The Phantom goes around murdering couples in parked cars. The local police take notice and try to stop the masked madman. Deputy Norman Ramsey (Andrew Prine) is lead on the case, but when he fails to catch The Phantom a second time, Texarkana PD calls on the expertise of Texas Ranger, M. T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas (Ben Johnson).
They’re joined by Patrolman A.C. “Sparkplug” Benton, a goofball character that Wikipedia claims is fictional and stuck in the movie for comic relief. Sparkplug is played by Charles B. Pierce, who happens to also be the director of this motion picture.
This movie is rather bizarre. It tries for humor by having Sparkplug drive a police car into a swamp or by having him dress up as a woman in order to lure the killer out. Then we’re treated to scenes of the killer doing grisly things to his victims. He murders one girl by attaching a knife to the end of a tuba and…well…you don’t want to know the rest.
Texas Ranger Gonzaullas and Deputy Ramsey have a final shootout with the killer, firing at him through a moving train. The Phantom is on the other side, you see. Gonzaullas wounds The Phantom in the leg, but the killer disappears before they can get to him. And that’s it. The killer is never seen again. The case goes unsolved.
The whole movie reminds me of a really long Unsolved Mysteries segment. Remember that show from the 80s, the one hosted by Robert Stack. They used to do segments on ghosts, UFOs, lost loves, etc. My favorite segments were always the unsolved crimes. I remember one about this mean old man who called up nephew one night, informing the nephew that he would be committing suicide in the woods. As the segment progresses, we come to find out that this mean’ old man had murdered his wife, burying her while pretending to dig a garden in the middle of autumn. The police hounds found no trace of his body anywhere near the property. On a Lifetime Channel repeat of this episode, it was revealed that the dogs hadn’t gone far enough into the woods. Than old man’s decomposing body was there. Mystery solved!
Kind of anticlimactic if you ask me.
That’s real life for you.
Jeffrey Shuster (episode 47, episode 102, episode 124, and episode 131) is an MFA graduate from the University of Central Florida.