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The Last Phantom Picture Show, or…

The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976)

Directed by Charles B. Pierce
Written by Earl E. Smith
Details at the IMDB, US.IMDB
Stalk this one at Reel.com

'T is the sunset of life gives me mystical lore,
And coming events cast their shadows before.
Thomas Campbell (1777-1844)

One of the things they teach computer science students is how to write a program for the Fibonacci sequence.  In a class where this was assigned, a student asked, "Why do we have to do this?  Does it have any real purpose or application?"  The instructor replied, "No, not really.  However, the Fibonacci problem is a minor classic, and like all classics, it's significant because it's historically noteworthy and a basis for ideas that will follow."

The Town that Dreaded Sundown is, by that same reasoning, a minor classic.
 

Contents

The Plot

When Auto Mechanics Attack

We open in Texarkana (population 40,000) eight months after the end of World War II.  A narrator establishes the period for us, describing the concerns of the day (returning GIs getting on with their lives, worries that the local arsenal would stay open, the availability of new cars).  Then the narrator tells us that, aside from changing the names of the characters, this is a true story.  (Insert theme from Dragnet here.)

The scene shifts as Sammy (Mike Hackworth) and Linda Mae (Christine Ellsworth) drive into the night while the legs of unidentified person in jeans and work shoes walk about.  The Sammy stops the car and tries to make strategic moves on the girl, but she's heard something outside.  Suddenly, the hood pops open and closes.  Standing at the front of the car is a man wearing a flour sack hood; he's holding up one of the parts of the engine. Linda Mae freaks while Sammy tries to start the car, but this won't work after that Mr. Goodwrench stunt by that other guy (hereafter referred to as the Phantom).  The Phantom breaks through the driver side window and pulls Sammy out.  Dead silence follows.  Then the attacker reaches in for the girl.  Run opening credits over the next morning, when a passing motorist stops for the beat up Linda Mae, the sheriff's deputies arrive, and an ambulance carries her away.
 

A bad sign of things to follow.
Actually, this is a sunrise....

Deputy Ramsey (Andrew Prine) is at the scene and he radios in the details.  At the hospital, Sheriff Barker (Robert Aquino) tries to ask Linda Mae about her attacker, but she's not responding.  A doctor says it's too early, and Sammy is also hurt too badly to answer questions.  In the hall, the doctor tells Barker she wasn't raped, but she was bitten about the stomach, back, and breasts.  (So maybe they should look for guys with eating disorders?)

Back at the police station, the police chief asks Barker and Ramsey about the case, but they decide the most they can do is warn the young people against going to Lover's Lane.  They're interrupted by the sound of Patrolman A. C. "Sparkplug" Benson (Charles Pierce, probably not the director), who is cussing out a dog owner on the phone.  The chief castigates Benson for his creative sense of law and order.
 

Dangerous Music

Cut to Emma Lou (Misty West) and her boyfriend, with a caption showing the date.  They drive into a rainy night three weeks after Sammy and Linda Mae were attacked, and most people have forgotten about that incident.  They stop and park.  Meanwhile, Ramsey is out patrolling by car.  He stops, radios in that he's going to be offline, and gets out.  Then he hears a shot and calls for backup.  He grabs his shotgun, and, while investigating an empty car, hears a couple of more shots and runs after the noise.  After he finds boy (dead, face down in the mud) and Emma Lou (dead, tied to a tree), he runs back to the car, but someone gets in it and takes off.  Ramsey arrives, gets ready to shoot, but holds off because he knows he's out of range.

The next morning, the local gun shops get some pretty brisk sales, and locksmiths do some heavy business.  The police decide to call for outside help, and Captain J. D. Morales (Ben Johnson) arrives.  He takes charge of the investigation, including press releases.  Shortly after his arrival, one of the locals asks him questions about his investigation because he's "interested in police work."  Morales tells him he should get a copy of the Police Gazette.

Morales decides to see the scene of the crime, and Benson is assigned as his driver.  Benson minces out to the car, sits down to start it, and realizes he doesn't have the keys.  He goes back in, and the wacky music tells us this was supposed to be comic relief.  (Note -- Comic relief is more effective during moments of tension and immediately after something horrible has happened.)  Benson also reveals he's not a very responsible driver.  (See previous note.)

The police get several false leads.  Some people confess or claim the crime.  Meanwhile, Ramsey points out to Morales that the interval between the two attacks was twenty-one days, and it's now twenty-one days since the last attack.  Morales decides to set up some decoys.  They dress some of their deputies as women, and there's more comic relief when Benson steps out in drag.  (What did I say about comic relief?)

Elsewhere, a local Junior/Senior prom is winding down for the night.  (Well, so much for a town gripped by fear and living under a curfew.)  Peggy Loomis (Cindy Butler) and Roy (Steve Lyons) get into his car.  After some discussion, they decide to drive to a park near the middle of the city.  A caption flashes the date (as if their actions weren't a bad enough sign.)  Later, the Phantom is seen stalking around the place where the boy and girl have parked.  Peggy insists it's time for her to go home.  Roy starts the car they drive off.  While they're in motion, the Phantom reaches in through the driver's window and grabs the boy.  (Now I know why cars don't have running boards anymore.)

After a struggle, both the boy and the Phantom fall and roll while the car crashes.  The Phantom beats up Roy, and then chases down Peggy, who is discovering her white dress and evening gloves don't make an effective track outfit.  The Phantom grabs and ties the pleading girl to a tree.  Then he takes his time finishing off Roy with a revolver, and later, fixes a knife onto the end of the slide of the girl's trombone and scale bayonets her to death.  (Uh, no, I didn't make that up.  Why do you ask?)
 
Benson (Charles Pierce) prepares for a real knock-down, drag-out fight.
The avenging ghost of Glen Miller plays "In the Mood."

The next day, the police are checking over the crime scene, and it really hacks them off that the Phantom struck in the heart of the city.  The national press shows up and a reward fund is established.  A psychologist meets with the investigators at a restaurant and tells them what kind of man they're looking for; he's a sadist, strongly sexually driven, and he's enjoying his brutal habit.  (This narrows the field to about ten percent of the men in the South.  Aw, c'mon, guys, I'm just kidding!)  He could also be a member of their community.  In the background, a patron within earshot pays for his meal and leaves, accompanied ominous music and a close-up of his work shoes.
 

Children of the Corn

Later, a mugging victim (Roy Lee Brown) tells the police the man who held him up also claimed to be the Phantom.  Later still, the police chase down a robber.  It's a car chase.  With bits in slow motion.  And "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" plays in the background as the Benson crashes into a pond.  (Nah, just kidding.  Well, about the music, anyway.)  The police catch the robber Eddie (Joe Catalavetto).   The mugging victim identifies Eddie as his robber, and Eddie says he's the Phantom.  Morales is not buying it.

A few scenes later, a caption shows the date (and we know what that means by now). Helen (Dawn Wells) gets in her car with some shopping while a pair of work shoes (and the guy in them) lurks nearby.  She drives home.  That night, while she's brushing out her hair and her husband, Floyd (uncredited), is reading the newspaper, she hears a noise.  The Phantom peeks in the window behind Floyd and pops him in the back of the head, through the glass, with a suppressed revolver.  (For technical, ballistic reasons involving the low muzzle velocity of silenced weapons, I can tell you this doesn't work as well in everyday life.)  Helen says, "Floyd, did you break something?"  After she sees him fall, she runs into the kitchen and cranks up the phone.  She doesn't get a connection fast enough.  Phantom plows through the screen door and puts two bullets through her face; blood spatters on the wall behind her.

While the Phantom is checking out his work on Floyd, Helen makes a crawl for it.  The Phantom grabs a pick and follows the trail of blood.  She struggles through a cornfield, and he follows. (At this point, I turned to Mrs. Apostic and said, "Hey!  He's stalking her!"  Mrs. Apostic said, "That's pretty corny."  "Shucks!" I replied. "My ears are burning.")  She makes it to a neighbor's house.  After a while, the lights turn on, and a middle-aged man with a shotgun rescues her.

The locals become even more careful, and the police intensify their search....
 

The Good Stuff

True Crime Illustrated

When this movie sticks to its documentary style, it's pretty good.  Crime stories (both true and made up) told as documentaries were nothing new, but one this feels more authentic than most.  I not sure, but I think that because the filmmakers don't veer into conspiracy theories (and there are some connected to the real case), there's less motivation to fight against the story presented in the film.

There were several films from about this same time that were set in the '20's through '40's, and most of them were historically unconvincing.  Take for example, The Sting.  Sure, it's a fun movie, but c'mon, do you really watch it and believe these people are living back when?  On the other hand, producers of The Town that Dreaded Sundown paid a lot of attention to detail on the period.  Cars, clothing, women's make-up, advertisements in the background, and mannerisms all have a strong sense of credibility.
 

Sadistic or Suspensful?

The attack scenes may be too drawn out or sadistic for most, but they are suspenseful and give enough time to sympathize with new characters that have been introduced shortly before being attacked.  There's also always a chance a female victim will get away from her relentless, faceless attacker.

Oh, and this movie should get points for its title.  As with The Hills Have Eyes, a good title alone can do a nice job creeping out the audience.
 

The Bad Stuff

The Day the Clown Fried

As mentioned in the plot above, comic relief is used poorly.  In its defense, one could say most of it looks like some things that belong in a movie from the late '40's, and these add to the movie's sense of period.  However, you'd have to go out on some pretty thin limbs to defend its inclusion on those grounds.  At least there were no sudden musical numbers featuring whatever singer was on contract with the production company.
 

Neon Foreshadowing

No one is killed or attacked until after a caption at the bottom of the screen shows the date.  Although this may be good for establishing some historical credibility in the early part of the film, its presence becomes suspense dulling formula after the second attack.  Perhaps they could have followed up a later attack with the caption, or showed the caption just as the Phantom appears….
 

Letter to the (Film) Editor

The goriest scene in the movie is the part where Helen takes a bullet through the head.  A hole pops into the wall and blood spatters behind her.  This is actually an elaborate effect.  Unfortunately, this scene was made without the benefit of remote controlled blood squibs; it looks like a stagehand spattered the blood by hand while a squib pops a hole in the wall.  It's effective and must've been a pain to coordinate, but it's strangely unconvincing.  Why?  The timing in editing was a bit off.  The Phantom shoots, there's a split second pause, and then the wall is splattered.  More attention to detail while editing the sound might've fixed that.

While on the subject of editing, there's a scene during the climax where a film crewman is clearly seen.  Usually, it's just a boom mike that will bend a movie's credibility.  When a movie has taken great pains making the setting look realistic, visible cameramen are the handmaidens of disbelief, and their appearance during the climax is a real bummer.
 
 

[Mangement regrets that we were unable to compose a caption that didn't involve that blasted TV series.]
Ben Johnson and Andrew Prine (lower right) fire warning shots at an unconcealed cameraman (upper left).

The Following Story is...Confused?

There seems to be some confusion with the character's names.  For example, a ballistics report talks about a bullet taken from "the Loomis girl," but she was the one who was shown being bayoneted.  If the Phantom also shot her, that detail was left out of the story.  I suspect the writers got confused about the names of the movie victims while changing their names from their historical counterparts.

And, really, death by trombone bayonet?  Public knowledge of what really happened to some of the victims seems to be sketchy at best.  If the real Phantom did this, so be it, but it comes out more silly than effective for showing how twisted the Phantom was.
 
 

The Who Cares Stuff

Notes on the Cast and Crew

Charles B. Pierce (director, producer) and Earl E. Smith (writer) are better known for The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972).  They also wrote the story for the Clint Eastwood movie Sudden Impact (1983).  Several of the actors and members of the production crew worked with Pierce on other movies.

Ben Johnson (Capt. J.D. Morales) was a rodeo man who did some stunt work in the '40's before getting some acting parts (usually as cowboys, go figure) in the movies.  His early simple, honest style can be seen in Mighty Joe Young (1949) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).  He won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show (1971).

Andrew Prine (Deputy Norman Ramsey) probably got his best part as James in The Miracle Worker (1962), but he also got his start playing cowboys.  In the '70's he started playing in horror flicks like the notorious Nightmare Circus (1973), but people are more likely to remember him for Grizzly (1976) and, well, Riding with Death (1976).

Dawn Wells (Helen Reed) was a former Miss Nevada who turned to acting.  She did guest spots in several TV shows in the late '50's and early '60's.  She currently has a webpage where she advertises an actor's workshop retreat.  Oh, yeah, and according to one of my unscientific polls, one of her characters is favored over Ginger by about nine to one.

Charles Pierce (Benson) has become a mystery to to me.  According to the IMDB, he was a female impersonator who specialized in the Hollywood greats of the '20's and '30's, and he recently passed away from cancer.  On the other hand, I'm not entirely sure they're the same person.  For example, should you visit Pierce's tribute pages, you could find pictures of him without make-up and a brief bio on his career.  The more I've looked at this stuff, the less sure I am.  Then there's the coincidence with the director's name.  (The worms.  The spice.  Is there a connection?)  If you have any firm information that might clear this up, please send me a line.

And lest we forget, this was one of the first movies for Bud Davis (The Phantom). He went on to be a stuntman and stunt co-ordinator for better known movies -- too many to list here, but most recently that list includes Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) and Bowfinger (1999).
 

Roots, Shoots, and Other Compares

Bonnie and Clyde (1967) -- Another period "true" crime story, with antique car chases.

The Last Picture Show (1971) -- Small town Texas after WWII, but Ben Johnson got an Academy Award for it.

Last House on the Left (1972) -- Although many will contend it's not a great film, many (including Roger Ebert) still find the pleading female victim scene to be effective.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) -- Relentless, faceless killer, Texas, pleading female victim, etc.

Halloween (1978) -- In addition to the relentless, faceless serial killer, also note the scene where Jamie Lee Curtis' character runs to the neighbors' house, with very different results.

Friday the Thirteenth Part 2 (1981) -- Before opting for the hockey mask, Jason was a relentless, faceless serial killer with a bag over his head.

Unsolved Mysteries (1988ff) -- Their format for presenting reenactments of crimes seems to follow this movie's style, but I’m not going to suggest the TV series was inspired by this movie.  On the other hand, while watching the movie, I kept expecting Robert Stack to jump out of nowhere.  Also note there are several similar programs with the same style on the various cable networks.

Scream (1996) -- As locals begin to take precautions against the faceless, relentless serial killer, a character mumbles, "It's The Town that Dreaded Sundown."

The Summer of Sam (1999) -- Coincidentally, Berkowitz began his attacks shortly after The Town that Dreaded Sundown was released.   It's a pretty tenuous connection, but that won't stop me from taking that as an unintentional invitation for comparison.  Perhaps if Lee and the writers had focused, not on stereotypical Italian-American disco-heads who may or may not have passed Berkowitz on the street, but on Bekowitz's victims, this thing wouldn't have made such a loud thud at the box-office.  Who knew they could've learned something from Pierce?
 

True Crime?

The identity of the Phantom never became public knowledge.  The curious may find a different set of details (and some more accurate names) at a website.  Please note that I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the information at that site.
 

The Bottom Line

Minor classic.  Good when it sticks to its documentary style, bad when it veers off into comic relief.  Recreations of the murders are not (by today's standards) very gory, but they are (by '70's standards) intense.  Recommended for horror compleatists, fans of relentless, faceless serial killers, true crime aficionados, and guys who wish Dawn Wells had been in something besides that blasted TV series.

Published 28 August 1999

 






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