It’s one of the most coveted and referenced films in horror. Tatum Riley (Rose McGowan) compared Woodsboro to it in Scream. You’ve heard the name “Loomis” in Halloween, Psycho and Scream. Why? Because it’s true. Because though the killer known simply as “The Phantom” is not the most fancy or terrifying culprit, it is the widespread panic and dread caused by his reign of terror that really hits home. He doesn’t have knives for fingers. He’s not really known for his snappy one-liners. He’s not very creative. He’s far from supernatural. He generally kills his victims quickly and without much fanfare, save for the occasional burst of creativity and/or perversion. His power lies in that rising sense of dread you feel in the pit of your stomach when you turn on the evening news and all you hear is that YOU ARE NOT SAFE. Fear is the one emotion that can break through the walls of apathy.
The original 1976 film, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, was based on actual events: “The Moonlight Murders” of Texarkana, a small town on the border of Texas and Arkansas. In the spring of 1946, The Phantom stalked the back roads of Texarkana, attacking young couples in their vehicles and is suspected of attacking one couple in their own home. He ultimately claimed five lives and injured several others, committing sexual assault on most of the women. The lack of technology and “hush-hush” standard of the time regarding these types of assaults may have contributed to the killer having never been identified. More than 300 suspects were questioned. None were detained. To this day, no one has been convicted and the crimes remain unsolved.
Post-World War II Texarkana was recovering from conflict and hopeful for the future as many of our soldiers returned home. Throughout the war, Texarkana was a soldier’s town, and still had its share of seedy areas lined with rough bars and strip clubs. Fights and murder was not entirely uncommon in the lower avenues of Texarkana. Yet most of the town which boasted a population of approximately 44,000 was all white picket fences and well-kept homes.
The Phantom (officially given the moniker by Calvin Sutton, managing editor of the Texarkana Gazette) made his first attack on Mary Jeanne Larey and Jimmy Hollis near midnight on February 22nd, 1946, while they were parked on Richmond Road, the local “Lover’s Lane.” Both victims survived their injuries and spent the next several months in a local hospital feverishly answering questions for frustrated law enforcement officials.
His second attempt, on March 24th, resulted in the murders of Richard L. Griffin and Polly Ann Moore. Both victims were shot in the head and left in their 1941 Oldsmobile on Bowie County Highway 67. Both Polly and Mary were sexually assaulted. However, this being 1946 and common knowledge being as antiquated as a right wing state senator’s knowledge of the female body, this information was not released to the press, nor was it investigated in any great detail. That would be just too much. Sex is dirty. We don’t talk about sex. Ignore it. It never happened.
The Phantom committed his third atrocity on April 14th, and just to show he meant it – it was his most brutal to date, and law enforcement could no longer deny certain details to public knowledge. I’ll spare you the details of the actual murders of Betty Jo Booker and Paul Martin, as the film’s depiction of The Phantom’s third rampage was entertaining enough. Who can forget his resourceful use of a trombone?
The fourth and final attack is where it gets interesting, yet murky, because it barely fits the modus operandi of The Phantom. The weapon, though similar, did not even match those used in the previous attacks. This guy used a .22 caliber semi-automatic as opposed to the .33 that The Phantom was synonymous for using. In my opinion, it screams copy cat. But I digress… On the evening of May 3rd, Katy and Virgil Starks were enjoying a nice quiet evening at home when Virgil, who was reading in his favorite chair, is shot twice in the head from a nearby window. When Katy found her husband and panicked, attempting to call for help, her jaw was blown off. Somehow, she managed to make it to a neighboring farm house and survived. Her description of the assailant, though vague like the first couple’s, described The Phantom. Other than that little fact, and the location being in rural Arkansas, near Texarkana, little else about the case points to the same killer.
Even in the film, though finally calling upon the classic imagery of a final girl scratching and clawing her way to survival as the killer walks leisurely toward her, I’m sitting there going, “Okay, but why are we attacking older couples at home in their granny panties now?” To help suspend disbelief, the role of Helen Reed (based on Katy Starks) was played by the irresistible Dawn Wells (Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island). She filmed it in 1 1/2 days and lent an air of motive for the attack. Because everyone knows that psychos prefer Mary Ann over Ginger.
First of all, BITCH…
Now, to be honest, I think this film is overrated. I don’t get off on true horror. And the movie is one of the few based on true events that I’ve seen which comes rather close to what actually happened, save for changing the names and there’s no evidence that Betty Jo’s trombone was actually used in her murder. That we know of. Second, and this is an amendment to my aforementioned disinterest in true horror, The Phantom was the most boring killer I’d ever encountered in the genre. Ugh. Seriously dude, you want go down in history for shooting young lovers with a burlap sack over your head? Nothing screams MOUTH BREATHER quite like that. Boring. Leave it in the daily paper. It’s not interesting enough to make a horror movie out of. Barely made available on VHS, with sporadic late night TV airings, and a 20-year hiatus until finally becoming available on Blu-Ray and DVD, The Town That Dreaded Sundown survived mostly in bootleg form and cultivated a strong underground following. So basically, it’s like V/H/S for your parents’ generation. All marketing and no bite. Seriously, if you’re going to dangle a horror film just out of my reach and make me salivate at the chance to devour it, it had better be worth it. Do not toy with me.
There was one aspect of the film that did interest me, and it’s blatantly obvious where I’m going with this by the title. The complete and utter pandemonium caused by these events, law enforcement with little or no answers, and the blood-thirsty press. By early evening, the once-busy and bustling streets and byways of Texarkana were deserted. Unfamiliar passersby were met with suspicious gazes. The county and surrounding cities completely sold out of ammunition. Families were setting booby traps with clanging pots and pans and exposed nails on their porches. Out-of-towners were followed in their vehicles until locals made sure they were just passing through. Vigilante groups emerged, intruding on police stake-outs and investigations. Some young couples even went to “Lover’s Lane” armed and waiting for The Phantom to try something.
The psychology of fear is not difficult to understand, but the effects of fear on a community as a whole are unpredictable and often more dangerous than the initial reason for their existence. When we face uncertainty, we crave explanations. If we cannot explain something away, we feel out of control and our fear escalates. Suddenly even supernatural explanations are acceptable rather than the complete unknown. In a heightened state of anxiety, victims often misinterpret normal goings on. Paranoia sets in. Vulnerability is at a dangerous level. If anyone wants to take advantage of you, this is their time. And they do. Don’t think for even one second that every single ad and/or news story wasn’t tailored to the citizens of Texarkana’s fear and vulnerability. Other factors come into play, such as “mob mentality.” The anonymity that this creates can sometimes make an otherwise normal person believe that they can act a certain way without facing the same consequences that those same actions would elicit if they had acted alone. Hence, vigilantism and copy cat killers.
The Phantom did not just claim five lives, but the lives of thousands. With the help of opportunists and the media, he became the poster child for emotional terrorism in 1946. It’s a fine line, because you want to be made aware of danger. You want to learn how to protect yourself. You want to be present and aware of your surroundings. And by god, you should look out for your fellow man as well. But you have to keep your wits about you because there are plenty of people around you who won’t.
I would have liked to see more of this in the original film, but with it being a mockumentary and centered on actual events that were, indeed, terrifying, that’s not the path it was going to follow.
Fast forward to 2014 and the remake.
I don’t know about you, Horrorland Heathens, but I thought this one was a blast! Yes, there are weak points, gimmicks, and plenty of clichés, and we’ll get to that. But first, can we just talk about how, in this age of remakes, refreshing it is to at least have filmmakers who understand that yes, there are bills to be paid, but selling out doesn’t necessarily mean you should just phone it in? Here’s the link to the iMDB page: The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014). Go there and bask for a moment in the people involved in this film. You’re going to see a lot of familiar faces from Horrorland, like Joshua Leonard (The Blair Witch Project), Edward Herrmann (The Lost Boys), Dennis O’Hare (American Horror Story), Spencer Treat Clark (The Last House On The Left 2009); and many other recognizable faces trying their luck in Horrorland. Impressive, to say the least. And Addison Timlin is a very promising Final Girl. The director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, is a virtual unknown, but his body of work which includes many episodes of American Horror Story and second-unit direction in films like Argo, let alone the stylish remake of this horror classic, speaks volumes of his talent. I look forward to seeing more of his work. I’m a little shocked to see that Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is behind the screenplay, as he is responsible for another 2014 remake, Carrie, which I found to be the biggest waste of an opportunity ever. But I’m trying really hard to reserve judgment because who knows if earlier drafts were great and business got in the way of pleasure, right? That’s usually how this crap goes.
Anyhow, so here we have a slick, clever remake of a beloved horror classic. Did you hear that? That was the sound of a billion horror hounds rolling their eyes all the way down to their asses. But wait… would you rather sit and watch (because you know you will, don’t deny it) them rehash the same old shit, only dumbed way down and sexed way up for the current generation; or would you find it mildly interesting to watch something that comments on the classic and builds from there? That’s what this remake does. These guys did their research. They know all about the original film and the people who worked on it. And they did their research on “The Moonlight Murders” perfectly melding together fact and fiction. No, there is no amazing revelation to boast, nor is there any ground being broken in the genre with this entry. However, it is just what it needs to be – and that is both an homage and a fresh take.
Jami is a sweet teenaged girl just trying to get a boy to like her when they are attacked and he is brutally murdered. Barely escaping with her life, she must now figure out if this is truly the return of The Phantom of Texarkana’s famed Moonlight Murders, or something even more evil. *gasp*
That’s the slow and skinny of it, but it actually interprets the lasting effects of the panic and fear inflicted upon the town 65 years prior, including those who were involved in making the first film. There are missing pieces of the puzzle to continue solving and a ton of easter eggs if you’re anything like me and have done some research regarding the true story behind The Moonlight Murders. I found the remake to be an intelligent tribute and strong story with legs of its own that gives maniacal horror fans something to chew on while at the same time, providing a sleek and stylish reimagining of a boring old 70’s flick for the young ‘uns of today - those little bastards with their dubstep and lack of respect.
Love & Screams,