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Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Town That Dreaded Sundown Review

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The Phantom Killer was an unidentified serial killer believed to have committed a number of murders in Texarkana, Texas between February 23 and May 4, 1946. Thus gives us the 1977 movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown.
You almost have to wonder if Unsolved Mysteries was inspired by this film because of the similar presentation and narration. Sunday, March 3, 1946. In the small town of Texarkana, Arkansas, Sammy and Linda Mae are out parking in a car. The car hood pops open and a man wearing a hood over his face takes something from the engine. Sammy realizes that someone is out there and fruitlessly tries starting the car as the hooded man breaks the drivers side car window with a pipe and pulls Sammy out. Linda Mae screams, and the man goes for her as well. Linda Mae is found lying severely wounded on the side of the road the following morning and both she and Sammy are taken to a nearby hospital. A doctor tells Deputy Ramsey and Sheriff Barker that Linda Mae was "bitten" and "literally chewed" on different parts of her body by the assailant. Police Chief Sullivan asks about the Lovers Lane Case and he tells the other officers to warn people about parking on lonely roads. Ramsey states his belief that the mysterious person will strike again.On March 24, Howard and his girlfriend, Emma Lou, go out driving in the rain. After hearing gunshots, Ramsey, patrolling in his car, finds Howard's parked car, but no one around. Ramsey hears more gunshots and in the woods he finds Howard and Emma Lou, both dead, having been shot several times. The hooded killer gets in the parked car and drives away.Since the killer, now known as "The Phantom" seems to have no motive and the townspeople begin to dread sundown. A few days later, Ramsey goes to the nearby train station to meet Captain Morales, a famous criminal investigator and Texas Ranger who arrives in Texarkana to find the killer. Morales has the officers set up a curfew for the entire town. Many people are on the case, including a few associates of the FBI whom also arrive in town to assist. But a number of criminals and crazy people come forward admitting to the murders, while a horde of other citizens are demanding protection. Ramsey tells Morales that on April 14, 21 more days after the second attack, the killer may strike again. Morales sets up decoys (cops posing as couples in unmarked parked cars). That every night at the local Junior and High Schools Prom, many people are leaving under the watchful eyes of the police officers nearby. Peggy gets her trombone and leaves with her boyfriend Roy. Roy suggests parking at their favorite spot, despite Peggy's wariness over the recent murders. After making out, the two of them nod off and wake up in their car at 2:40 in the morning. As Roy starts the car and begins to drive away, the Phantom jumps on their car, grabs Roy and causes both of them to fall out. The Phantom whacks Roy on the head with a pistol and chases Peggy down, and ties her to a tree. A dazed Roy gets up and tries to run away, but the killer shoots him dead. The killer gets Peggys trombone, attacked a knife to the end and "plays" the instrument, stabbing Peggy in the back a few times, killing her. The next day, Morales is upset that the Phantom was able to kill again with all the law officers out looking for him. In a nearby diner, Morales, Ramsey and the group talk to Dr. Kress, who says that the Phantom is apparently motivated by a strong sex drive and will probably not get caught. He also says that the killings are like a game of the Phantom. Morales asks the doctor if the killer is insane, in which Dr. Kress replies "oh, yes!". At a nearby table, an unseen man, (wearing the killer's boots and slacks) stands up and walks out of the diner unnoticed after he has apparently heard everything the officers were talking about. If you are at all familiar with the real Phantom case then you know the killer was never caught. The only major suspect in the Phantom case was Youell Swinney, a 29-year-old car thief with a record of counterfeiting, burglary, and assault who was arrested in Texarkana in July 1946. Swinney’s wife, who was also arrested, told police that Swinney was the Phantom and that she had been with her husband when he committed the murders. Swinney’s wife kept changing the details about the killings, however, and police came to view her as an unreliable witness. After being questioned by the police in Texarkana, Swinney was questioned in Little Rock. Swinney was eventually convicted of car theft in Texas and, as a repeat offender, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1947. In 1970, Swinney petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus, claiming that he should be released because he had not been represented by counsel in a 1941 felony conviction that was used to enhance his sentence in 1947. Swinney’s life sentence was overturned on appeal and he was set free in 1973. He died in 1994. The case of the Phantom has never been solved and remains open, although as of 2006 it is considered cold. The film itself follows the true events very closely and was very well acted. It is funny to note, too, that the killer wears a white hood as Jason would go onto do a few years later in Friday The 13th Part 2. It is really sad that this film has not received DVD treatment yet as this would be perfect for a good 2 disc special edition. One disc could have the movie and the other could have an in depth history on the story. I thought the movie was very enjoyable, not much gore, but the suspense is what draws you in here. You'll notice that one of the victims was Dawn Wells who played Mary Ann on Gilligan's Island. This film is worth a look if for nothing more than the historical value.