The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976)
With the remake just released I think it is a good time to go back and review the original The Town that Dreaded Sundown. This is a film that truly deserved the remake because it is cult, low budget, interesting premise and with a bit of a touchup it could do wonders. The original definitely earned the cult status as a film you mainly only saw if you knew someone who had a copy or if your town still had a cool drive-in when you were growing up and it still holds up in an odd way.
Extra Bit: This is a film in a long train of “based on real events” that came out around the same time as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. When someone says this is not real feel free to smirk and tell them that they really should study up on old cases cause the events not only happened (give or take), but even gained a lawsuit from the real life brother of a victim. Remember, only you can prevent hipsters.
As the extra bit above pointed out this is a “based on true events” title and the town of Texarkana does exist and there was someone in the 40’s who did go on a murdering spree killing 5 people over a few months. From about here on though the film (much like the rest of these style of films) goes into its creative license realm. The characters are changed up, the story plays a bit differently and in the end it just made up its own horror off of some small facts. Hell, there is an infamous story they did not even have an ending for the film at any point and had to write it on the set.
The film starts off quite different than most films of this style in that we get a narrator explaining to us the story of the town and the events. The narration then carries through the rest of the film and with the 70’s style grainy footage makes the film play out more like an episode of Dragnet than a typical horror / slasher film. There is even this odd school documentary atmosphere to the film that maybe at the time felt normal, but looking at it now makes it feel even creepier. It works in many ways that makes you wonder why no one else has tried to replicate it.
The actors within the film are a slew of character actors who turn in pretty good performances. They make the film simply feel grittier and add to the previously mentioned documentary style feeling.
Headlining the cast is Ben Johnson who cut his teeth on Western classics such as Shane and Hang ‘em High while dipping his toes in some fun horror films like Terror Train playing the sheriff of the small town and playing it like you’d expect him to be, big, off to the side and like a good old boy.
Starring the most in the film really was Andrew Prine who started acting with a role on just about every major TV Series 60’s and several cult favorites of the 70’s with a mix bag across the 80’s and 90’s. While never truly big he was known and like any great character actor playing a small town deputy he was basically Andy Griffith with a gun.
Though if you want to get into people are famous from TV there is a lovely cameo (she gets a top billing for what was mainly two scenes) of Dawn Wells. To older readers you know that name immediately and to younger readers you likely saw her as Mary Ann on reruns of Gilligan’s Island. Not sure why someone would leave Ginger alive and go after Mary Ann, but as one of the few truly known names in the film she definitely got a high billing.
The town itself plays as a big a part of the film as the actors. I mean this pretty literally as they actually shot scenes of the movie in the real life Texarkana (yes that is the real name of the town) and had several of the townsfolk as extras in the film. The town as the backdrop definitely has a small town feel perfection and as my family came from these and I was forced to visit them (yeah definitely “forced”) I can say that they did a great job giving it that little Texas / Arkansas town feeling.
As much credit as I give this film it definitely has some huge flaws. One being that character of Sparkplug (Fun Fact: this character was actually played by the director) whose entire role in the film was to add comedic relief. Yeah, you know what a good documentary style horror film needs? A good slapstick joker to just randomly lose keys, not start a car and cross dress to catch a killer. This whole character ruins just about every scene he is in. Add the film was so low budget they actually reused footage shot for The Legend of Boggy Creek and you can tell as it looks different than the rest of the film.
As far as horror goes the film plays more on atmosphere and creepy situations than on the gore. There are a few scenes such as the one with a trombone, but the scenes overall do not feel too intense and kinda bland. The setup is scary, makes you wonder what will happen and definitely makes situations where you go “Yeah, I’d shit myself”. Too bad that everyone who is killed is introduced when they are killed so you somewhat never care they died. Their biggest name, Dawn Wells, is only shown coming out of store before we go off to her farmhouse and she is attacked.
I give this film 2 ½ scars out of 5 cause while it is atmospheric in a very unique way the disjointed feeling of the comedy, bad footage and not enough time to care about some of the kills makes it harder to fully invest in it.
The Town that Dreaded Sundown (2014)
As I said on the original review this was a film that deserved a remake and in line with things such as The Hills Have Eyes and Dawn of the Dead, this is a remake that rivals the original. It is rare for this to happen, but when it does you cannot help but appreciate it. Even as the film starts and you see that old school Orion logo cross the screen you will be filled with old memories of joy off the bat… and then ask “that is still a thing?”, which indeed it is now.
Extra Bit: Even though there is a character in the film that is the original film’s director’s son, he is actually not of any relation to the director. However, much like how he played the bumbling character in the first film he does cameo in the remake as a man in the background at the diner. So if someone drops some weird urban legend sounding BS story that he heard it really was his son feel free to explain to them how this is not 6 degrees of Charles B. Pierce and then explain how you are connected to Kevin Bacon in only 5 steps. Remember, only you can prevent hipsters who still reference 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
I guess the best way to begin to explain this film is to state that it is meta in ways that make it feel like a Horror Movie Inception. The film takes place in Texarkana in a world where the film was actually made and released in 1976, there are yearly showings around every Halloween of the original and the murders really did take place as they did in the real world. Which while I do love the concept I cannot help but want to shout “Scream 4 did it… just minus there ever having been a real town with those killings!”
The second thing I should bring up is that if you have not seen the original you may want to watch it before this movie cause while it is a “remake” it does give away the original film. Rather than being set in the 40’s this is set in modern time with there having been no killings between the originals and now. So if you do not want some cool killings or just the original story ruined hold off on seeing this.
The cast in this film puts the original’s to shame with the people they got. To start, Addison Timlin plays the main character of the film and with only a few years under her belt she has already turned out a great performance for Odd Thomas and knocked out a good season of Californication. Next up for leading ladies we have the ever awesome Veronica Cartwright who if you do not recognize immediately odds are that name sounds familiar. No she is not related to the voice of Bart Simpson, but is known for her iconic role as Lambert in Alien and a ton of work including Birds, Witches of Eastwick and so many more.
Rounding up the male stars we have to start with Anthony Anderson, or as you may remember him, the guy who keeps judging cooking shows and sold out his friends for donuts in Transformers. Yeah he has done other things, but really that is about all you need to know. Thankfully he does turn in a good job though his character can easily feel forgotten in the script. Then you have got Joshua Leonard as a deputy and frankly when you get someone who got his start in The Blair Witch Project you gotta give him some credit.
Getting through the rest of the list the cast keeps getting more amazing. Let’s speed this up though. Edward Herrmann plays a reverend and he is known as the video shop owner from The Lost Boys and Richie Rich’s dad in an example of an awful remake. Then there is Gary Cole who is known for a lot of voice work but also some badass turns in movies like Office Space and if you can remember him from that, yeah that’d be great. The list really does keep going and there are almost no true unknowns in the film playing any speaking parts.
The cast is not the only thing that beats the original as the death scenes get more details and a grittier feel. They do repeat the trombone kill for this film and the scene is one of the best for several reasons that I do not want to outright spoil. What I do want to point out is the film showing the death in the scene rather than showing it at an awkward angle to hide the gore like the original did. All the deaths seem to actually have a budget behind them this time while the original felt like it was cheaper to suggest what the killer did. This adds something to the remake that the original was lacking.
The only thing this film could not fully succeed in was getting down the atmosphere of the original. The town itself just feels bigger and not as small town as it should. The film is shot clearer which loses something of the grainy documentary feel of the original. They cut the documentary side making me really wish they had gone with the narrator more and not use the main girl to do most of it since it feels as if she is reading a diary entry than telling a story. It also likes to randomly break into the voiceovers with certain scenes having it where you do not need it and scenes such as the opening missing it where you would expect it. The acting is great, kills are fun and pacing is good, but that want for something creepier and that feeling of helplessness the original had is lost causing this not to feel right. Not to mention the town still had a drive-in and what fucking town has those around? Talk about just pulling you out of the film.
I give this film a 3 ½ scars out of 5 (a whole scar above the original) as it plays off the original in a wonderful way that is rare and pretty unique. The cast is amazing, the story is fun and the overall concept is great.