The auteur of this low-budget horror film was Charles B. Pierce, a Texarkana resident who started his own advertising agency shortly after moving there in 1969. Pierce had expressed a lifelong interest in filmmaking (having fooled around making home movies in his youth along with future producer-director-Clinton crony Harry Thomason), and in 1972 put together his first independent feature film, The Legend of Boggy Creek—a faux documentary about a Bigfoot-like creature allegedly running amok in Foulk, Arkansas. Boggy Creek was a surprise hit (particularly with the drive-in crowd), eventually taking in $20 million at the box office.
(Sundown was distributed by American International Pictures—the gold standard in drive-in movie fodder.) The Texarkana hyphenate (director-producer—and yes, even actor) secured the services of Academy Award-winning actor Ben Johnson (The Last Picture Show) to play one of the major roles in Sundown, not to mention familiar names in Andrew Prine (The Miracle Worker, The Wide Country) and Dawn Wells (Gilligan’s Island). While Sundown was not the first entry in what eventually became the “slasher” film genre (there are earlier examples, notably 1974’s Black Christmas) it could be argued that it paved the way for features that followed in its wake (Halloween, etc.)…and it has even been suggested that Pierce’s style later influenced big horror movie hits like The Blair Witch Project (1999).
Stierman informs us “the incredible story you are about to see is true, where it happened and how it happened…only the names have been changed.” Since I dare not risk the wrath of Our Lady of Great Caftan by pointing out that the narrative in Sundown plays a bit fast and loose with the actual facts of the case, I’ll simply point out that the plot somewhat mirrors the real-life events by revolving around a series of killings in the border town that have stymied the local constabulary, represented by Sheriff Otis Barker (Robert Aquino) and Police Chief R.J. Sullivan (Jim Citty). The decision is made to bring in a pair of fresh eyes on the murders—none other than legendary Texas Ranger Captain J.D. Morales (Johnson). (The Morales character is a fictionalized version of real-life lawman M. T. "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas, who in retirement served as a consultant on the radio/TV series Tales of the Texas Rangers, created by Stacy Keach, Sr.)
There are several additional murders—one that takes place at a secluded farmhouse, with the husband of Helen Reed (Wells) being shot in the head by the assailant (Helen manages to escape her would-be killer despite having been shot twice in the face)—before Morales and Ramsey get a tip on a stolen car that’s identical to one Ramsey spotted earlier as he came upon two previous victims. The hunt for the car leads to a sand pit, and the Phantom Killer is spotted so the two men give chase. The Killer is shot in the leg during the pursuit, but before he can be apprehended a passing train impedes the progress of Morales and Ramsey to capture their man…and the Killer evades their capture.
(The movie ends with narrator Stierman filling in a little background on the principals—how they fared after the events in the movie and their dates of death, when applicable—and he mentions that a movie [Sundown] was made based on the killings. We then see a group of people standing in line for the film…including the boots of the Phantom Killer himself—that suggestion came from Mrs. Pierce.) But just as 1997’s Titanic isn’t necessarily ruined if you know the ending (there are other things that sink that film—believe me), you can still enjoy Sundown on its own terms even if you know the particulars of the case.
Ben’s the classiest thing in Sundown—a no-nonsense lawman decked out (in the manner of the real-life Gonzaullas) in an impeccable white suit and ten-gallon hat who at times expresses a honest concern that the killer he’s after is smarter than he is. Dawn Wells’ role in the movie is fairly brief (she was supposed to work eight days but wrapped up her scenes in one-and-a-half) but Gilligan’s Island fans might get a kick out of seeing her on the run from a serial killer in a cornfield (Wells also appeared in the director’s 1975 film Winterhawk, which features Doris Day(s) regular Denver Pyle in the cast).
Yes, you read that right—the Phantom attaches a knife to the slide end of the musical instrument, and kills a woman while attempting to channel his inner Glenn Miller. (This is one of the plot details with which Pierce took some dramatic license—while there was a musical instrument involved in one of the murders, it was a saxophone…and not outfitted with a knife.) For a low-budget 1970s movie, Sundown manages to capture a fairly accurate evocation of its 1946 time period (just don’t look too closely at some of the 70s haircuts). The only real debit in the movie is some unfunny comedy relief that throws the mood of the film askew; director Pierce shoulders the blame for this one because he plays a bumbling patrolman nicknamed “Sparkplug” who for reasons unexplained is assigned the task acting as Morales’ chauffeur. (There’s an extended sequence—complete with bucolic “comedy” music—in which Mr. Plug manages to get a police vehicle stuck in a swamp; I kept expecting to see the Duke boys being chased by Roscoe P. Coltrane about that time.)
(The festival, which runs from May to October, traditionally features Sundown as the last movie on the schedule.) I’d recommend checking out the Blu-ray/DVD combo of Sundown because it’s paired with another Charles B. Pierce effort, The Evictors (1979)—which the director considered one of his best films. (There are also some bodacious extras on the set as well.)
As for myself, I had to make do with Sundown’s recent scheduling on Epix on Demand over the holiday weekend as part of the AT&T U-Verse “freeview” of the service’s premium cable channels. I watched the 1976 version…then braved myself for its “remake,” which had a brief (very brief) theatrical run in mid-October after appearances at film festivals in Austin, L.A. and London.
Two high school kids (Addison Timlin, Spencer Treat Clark) skedaddle before the film finishes unspooling and retreat to a Texarkana “lovers’ lane” for a little passionate necking. Life soon imitates art as The Phantom Killer begins to emulate the murders showcased in the earlier film, with Jami, the survivor of the first attack, taking it upon herself to research the unsolved case while the police (represented by Gary Cole and Blackish’s Anthony Anderson—as Texas Ranger “Lone Wolf” Morales) remain as stymied as ever. There are a good number of references to the original Sundown, and while the 2014 version showed some initial promise it eventually degenerated into your typical teen-slasher flick…its imaginative premise scattered to the four winds and an ending that I will not spoil for you except to say it earned four eye-rolls from yours truly.
Character actor Denis O’Hare (True Blood, American Horror Story) plays the son of celebrated director Charles B. Pierce…but the real Pierce, Jr. actually appears in a quick movie cameo by hizzownself as a diner patron. (Pierce, Sr. passed away in 2010.) But in the end, the 2014 version falls short of recreating the accomplishment of the original—namely, a drive-in throwaway that manages to be an entertaining little chiller, a standout in the limited oeuvre of a filmmaker that a character in the 2014 homage describes as “Texarkana’s Orson Welles.” Ivan-Bob says check it out.