This 1976 exploitation movie unusually straddles several genres. Made by Texan independent Charles B. Pierce (of Boggy Creek fame), it’s a true crime story about a murderer known as ‘the Phantom’ who assaulted and killed a series of couples in cars in Texarkana, on the Texas-Arkansas border, in the late 1940s. Like Zodiac, whose m.o. was so similar there’s a possibility the later killer was a copycat, the Phantom was never caught, which makes for a story that trails off somewhat. It opens with a long, narrated section about the state of the town just after World War II, and shows Pierce being fairly ambitious (under the influence of The Last Picture Show?) in period recreation when it comes to cars, clothes and packaging (a few of the haircuts are ‘70s giveaways). The plot is carried by the cops, with Ben Johnson adding gravitas as ‘legendary’ Texas Ranger Captain J.D. Morales and Andrew Prine earnest as his local sidekick – though we get sidetracked by humorous bits about dimwit officers, and a dubious comedy sequence in which husky cops drag up to act uselessly as decoys. The major comedy cop is ‘Sparkplug’, played with a thick layer of ham and too little actual comedy by Pierce himself.
Tipped into this good ole boy business are proto-slasher scenes of the sack-hooded Phantom (stuntman Bud Davis, lately co-ordinator on Inglourious Basterds) terrorising and killing folks. In the most extraordinary crime, he attacks tunelessly with a knife at the end of a trombone slide, but he also uses a plain old gun (a rare slasher movie weapon, for obvious reasons) and there’s a sustained scene in which one victim (Dawn Wells, from Gilligan’s Island), shot twice in the head, manages to get away from the killer and survive. In the end, the cops close on the Phantom and Morales gets off a shot that wounds him in the leg – a closing narration explains that most folks think the murderer is serving time for other crimes (this seems the most popular theory) but a close-up limping foot suggests he’s still in Texarkana in the mid-70s and waiting to go off again. Pierce isn’t much of a director, and a lot of the supporting performances are awkward, but the stalking and killing scenes have a gruesome, matter-of-fact verve. At the time, the tendency was to fictionalise serial killer biopics a la Demented, but this is perhaps an early entry in the still-running cycle of gruesome cash-in true crime movies. It’d make an interesting double bill with Zodiac.