The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas rightly have earned acknowledgement as early slashers paving the way for John Carpenter’s Halloween. Though it’s a much smaller entry in the horror genre, the 1976 The Town That Dreaded Sundown is something of a proto-slasher itself. Based loosely on a series of 1946 killings in the small town of Texarkana, The Town That Dreaded Sundown added some visual elements to the slasher blueprint. Critics were not that impressed with director Charles B. Pierce’s recycling of the pseud-documentary approach he previously used in The Legend of Boggy Creek. But there was enough of a good idea here to justify a much-better received remake in 2014.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) Featured a Creepy Killer and Weird Trombone Scene
Released well before the slasher movie crystallized as its own distinct subgenre, The Town That Dreaded Sundown laid some of the tropes. First and foremost, its masked killer clearly fits the bill for the masked psychosexual killer found in many 80s slashers. Of course, the hood with eyeholes cut out may have directly influenced the look for Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th Part II. Certainly, ‘The Phantom’ – played by Bud Davis – remains one the consistently scary aspects of The Town That Dreaded Sundown. There’s an intensity conveyed just in the eyes to the masked killer that rises above the more hokey aspects of this one. Most of the deaths are straightforward, but surprisingly brutal. But the infamous trombone scene feels like a spiritual precursor to the creative deaths found in Golden Era slashers.
… ‘The Phantom’ scenes, including the stalking of Gilligan’s Island alum Dawn Wells, feel genuinely suspenseful. Some of the violence also disturbs.
While it’s an overall satisfying proto-slasher, strange contrasts define The Town That Dreaded Sundown. On one hand, ‘The Phantom’ scenes, including the stalking of Gilligan’s Island alum Dawn Wells, feel genuinely suspenseful. Some of the violence also disturbs. Despite a smaller budget, director Charles B. Pierce (The Legend of Boggy Creek) makes a train chase scene look slick. Ben Johnson (Terror Train) and Andrew Prine (V: The Final Battle) round out a good cast. Pierce’s pseudo-documentary approach adds to the mystery. Yet the tone wildly swings and, as a result, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, often feels goofy.
Clever Mix of Meta-Sequel and Remake Mostly Improves On Its Source Material
Now if you’re going to remake a movie, here’s how to do it. And this isn’t to say that the 2014 The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a great horror movie. Yes, it’s a hidden gem of a movie that mostly improves on its source material. But the 1976 thriller was a prime suspect for a remake – interesting premise, flawed execution. Most importantly, writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s positioning of the remake as a meta-sequel to the original works. Working the original film – and the real tradition of Texarkana showing that movie each year – as a starting point to a Phantom-inspired killer feels clever. So the remake is a sequel to a movie that it treats as fictional but was based on a real event now worked into the remake. Does that make sense?
It’s a head-scratching narrative decision that slightly derails the remake.
Working with a bigger budget and doing away with the silly bits, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon delivers a much more polished slasher. If the mystery behind the movie doesn’t always intrigue, The Phantom is every bit as intimidating as the original incarnation. Moreover, the kill scenes are lean and brutal even if there’s nothing overly original in the mix. If only Aguirre-Sacasa and Gomez-Rejon reconsidered the plotting of the third act. While the original ended ambiguously, the remake forces a nonsensical twist that offers a more concrete, but less satisfying, conclusion. It’s a head-scratching narrative decision that slightly derails the remake.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown Makes For a Good Rainy Day Double-Bill
Neither version of The Town That Dreaded Sundown will confuse horror fans for a genre classic. While the original suffers somewhat from tonal inconsistencies, the remake undoes some of its goodwill with a terrible ending. But the 1976 original makes for a good piece of vintage 70s horror with an intense killer. Besides the trombone scene must be seen to be believed. And the remake has a clever setup and just enough intensity to earn hidden gem status. Most importantly, the remake doesn’t replace the original. Watching these two movies back-to-back would make for a good rainy day for horror fans.