FIVE FILMS FROM...1976
The Town That Dreaded Sundown
(Directed by Charles B. Pierce)
One of the first (and most popular) docu-horrors around is 1972’s “The Legend of Boggy Creek”. With its unusual mixture of creepy reconstructions and eyewitness accounts of an Arkansas-based Sasquatch, it became a cult film and as much an important slice of Americana as it was a “monster flick”. So it was only right that its director would go on to make another real-life mystery into such an enduring movie. It’s famously based on the “Texarkana Moonlight Murders” that took place in that area during 1946. Attributed to a masked individual who became known as “The Phantom Killer” by the media, at least eight people were attacked during 10 weeks of terror, with five of the victims subsequently dying. The murders were never solved, and Pierce takes almost the same approach with the subject matter as he did with “Boggy Creek” (and even worked with the same writer, Earl E. Smith, on the screenplay). So despite the grim and frequent narration from Vern Stierman (who performed the same duties on “Boggy Creek”), we get seasoned actors like Andrew Prine and Ben Johnson play fictional versions of genuine people involved in the investigation. The film itself treads a surprisingly canny path between outright exploitation (the murder sequences have a very “slasher pic” quality about them), and a fascinating telling of actual crimes during a transformative era in US history.
Admittedly the film does play somewhat fast-and-loose with verifiable facts about the case. The infamous sequence where a female victim is bizarrely killed with a trombone she was carrying, is in fact a total fabrication - Her real-life counterpart was shot and actually played the saxophone. But by and large, the rest of the narrative at least “feels” accurate and compelling, even if little embellishments are added and timelines are slightly altered. Whilst we are bombarded with true-crime films and exposes on TV and Cinemas these days, this is a genuinely unsettling offering that earns its “really-happened” stripes far more than other murder bio-pics. We get a genuine sense of paranoia from the (real) townsfolk, a palpable fear from the innocent victims, and even the unwarranted malice from the bag-headed villain feels authentic within the documentary-aping constraints of the film. Initially derided by mainstream critics, and earning one lawsuit from a relative of a victim, it has gone on to be appreciated as a cult film ahead of its time. To highlight this, Texarkana holds an open-air screening of the movie every Halloween. The surprisingly good remake/sequel with the same name in 2014 is also worth checking out, owning a couldn’t-be-more-Meta plot heavily relying on that very screening and details in the film, as well as the original murders themselves. And yes… it is highly likely that the Phantom Killer inspired Bag-Head Jason from “Friday the 13th: Part II”..
The House With The Laughing Windows