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The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

The film is somewhat loosely based on the actual crimes attributed to an unidentified serial killer known as the Phantom Killer; it claims that “the incredible story you are about to see is true, where it happened and how it happened; only the names have been changed.” The actual Phantom attacked eight people between February 22, 1946 and May 3, 1946 in or near the town of Texarkana, Texas, which is on the border of Texas and Arkansas. Most of the murders occurred in rural areas just outside of Texarkana, in Bowie County, Texas, while the film has them occurring in Arkansas. However, the general outline of the murders largely follows the reality, with mostly minor artistic license taken. As in the film, the real killer was never identified nor apprehended.

The film is loose enough with the facts that one family member of a victim filed a lawsuit in 1978, over its depiction of his sister. The fabricated facts in the film have also caused rumors and folklore to spread for generations around Texarkana. The film’s tagline claims that the man who killed five people “still lurks the streets of Texarkana, Ark.”, causing officials of that neighboring city to threaten Pierce over the ads in 1977; however, it remained on the posters.

The film was produced and directed by Charles B. Pierce who also co-stars as a bumbling police officer named A.C. Benson, also known as “Sparkplug”. Pierce’s fifth film is narrated by Vern Stierman who had previously narrated Pierce’s 1972 film The Legend of Boggy Creek. Ben Johnson stars as Captain J.D. Morales, the fictionalized version of real-life Texas Ranger Captain M. T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas. Dawn Wells (Mary Ann of Gilligan’s Island) appears as one of the victims. Cindy Butler (Pierce’s girlfriend at the time) plays Peggy Loomis, the trombone victim. The Phantom is played by Bud Davis, who later worked as stunt coordinator on films such as Forrest Gump, Cast Away, and Inglourious Basterds.

The film was mostly shot around Texarkana, and a number of locals were cast as extras. The world premiere was held in Texarkana on December 17, 1976, before its regular run in theaters on December 24. The film is an early example of a slasher film, having been released two years before Halloween (1978), and just two years after Black Christmas (1974), a film considered as one of the earliest in the genre.

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