Usually when movies make that claim they are either half right (Texas Chainsaw Massacre , which found inspiration in the real life killer Ed Gein) or just completely made up (as is with Fargo ), but in the case of The Town that Dreaded Sundown, it truly was based on an actual series of murders that took place in 1946, with only the names of those involved and some of the details changed. The movie is a decent piece of drive-in fare, albeit one with more than its share of problems, namely some wild tonal shifts into comedy and the piss-poor lighting and night photography. The Town that Dreaded Sundown is far from a great movie, but it has a good idea and a memorable and iconic screen villain in "The Phantom Killer."
The movie is also presented in a docudrama style, with a narrator that introduces the film and occasionally pops back in to fill the audience in on backstory and other facts in the case. In addition to that, the calendar dates of the murders flash on screen and, along with the narrator, this gives the film (which is otherwise shot like an ordinary horror film) a feeling or look of a television true-life mystery program, like an Unsolved Mysteries but with better reenactments. (note: I thought that Unsolved Mysteries analogy was an original thought, but turns out that comparison is mentioned on the film's wikipedia page. Sigh. . .so much for original thoughts...)
Texarkana Moonlight Murders and despite the efforts of local and state law enforcement, the case has never been solved.
The movie differs from those true-life events in changing some of the dates of the murders and some of the details, making the stalking scenes and the sadisticness of the crimes that much more frighteningly cinematic. The real Phantom Killer did indeed wear a white bag on his head with eye holes cut out, which is why the survivors of his first attack could not identify him. It is quite the creepy look, one that Jason Vorhees would borrow in Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981).
In the actual murders, the killer used a gun exclusively, with minimal bludgeoning and perversion, although psychiatrists did theorize that he was a sex deviant. The movie version of The Phantom is said to have "bitten and clawed" one victim like an animal, although that is done off-screen. Also, there is no evidence that the real Phantom Killer ever used a trombone to kill anyone.
In general, the stalk and kill scenes are pretty good. They're lengthy, with a good amount of time devoted to tension build-up. Even when not onscreen, The Phantom's presence haunts the film. When he does pop up out of nowhere and attacks, it is genuinely freaky and disturbing, maybe none more-so than when The Phantom breaks into Helen Reed's (Dawn Wells) house and assaults her.
Also inconsistent is the tone of the movie. In multiple scenes, the film dips into a broad territory of comedy, most of it delivered by hapless doofus Police Patrolman Benson, who is tellingly nicknamed "Spark Plug." At one point, Spark Plug dresses as a woman (as part of an attempted trap to lure The Phantom) and at another point he drives a car into a lake. It really is eye-rollingly bad, and not made any better by the fact that Patrolman Benson is played by director Charles B. Pierce. The swing from brutality to broad comedy leads me to compare the film to The Last House on the Left (1971), although the hayseed comedy of The Town that Dreaded Sundown is much worse and it never reaches the levels of vile sadisticness of Wes Craven's shocker.
Coffy (1973), Scream Blacula Scream (1973), Dillinger (1973), Black Belt Jones (1974), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), and Carny (1980).
Screenwriter Earl E. Smith wrote many of Pierce's early movies. Pierce and Smith both have story credit on Clint Eastwood's Sudden Impact (1983), the fourth Dirty Harry movie.
Stuntman Bud Davis, who plays The Phantom (pretty well, in my opinion), would go on to a successful career as a stunt coordinator on big Hollywood films like Forest Gump (1994) and Inglorious Basterds (2009).
In reality, the killer was never brought to justice and rumors abound as to what happened to him. Some claim he was arrested for an unrelated charge, while some believe he would pick up his murder spree years later in the San Francisco area as The Zodiac Killer. What truly happened to The Phantom Killer is anyone's guess, as at this point it seems as if the truth about this serial killer will remain a mystery.
The Town that Dreaded Sundown (at least the VHS transfer I watched) is very rough looking, with washed out colors and dark, murky lighting. The night scenes are frustratingly dark; it looks like they were shot in actual darkness; like night for night. Hopefully, Scream Factory's new HD BluRay/DVD combo release (decked out with bonus features, including a bonus movie: Pierce's The Evictors [!!]) goes a long way in correcting these problems (and from what I've read and seen, it does indeed).
The above screencap is from the version I watched. The below picture I found is from the same scene and is apparently from the new BluRay. Andrew Prine's face says it all.