The original Town the Dreaded Sundown exists in kind of a strange place in horror history. Coming just before the slasher boom, it certainly has elements that would be used in other movies (the Phantom’s rag over his head looks exactly like Jason’s in Friday the 13th Part 2), but the movie itself plays out almost like a true crime documentary.
Its use of narration and real life basis gives it a chilling grit, unlike many of the later fun and campy slashers of the 1980’s. So when its sequel/reboot was released in 2014, audiences were surprised, and intrigued by its very unique approach.
Rather than just redoing the original or setting the same story in modern day, it features a much more meta take on the events, and explores how horror based on true events can have lasting effects in real life.
Movie within a Movie
From the very first scene, the audience is made aware that the original Town that Dreaded Sundown from 1976 exists as a movie in this one, as we see the characters attending a screening of it. As far as sequels and reboots go, it doesn’t get any more meta than this.
Not since Human Centipede: Full Sequence (which was far too gruesome to be mainstream) has the first movie existed as a movie in universe for the second movie; where characters in the latter watch and reference it. It takes the meta approach one step further than even the Scream franchise did with the fake movie-within-a-movie franchise of “Stab”.
As horror (and film in general) becomes more self-referential in a struggle to stay current and try new things, this specific approach is very rarely used and The Town the Dreaded Sundown (2014) deserves way more recognition for doing it.
The original movie’s legacy is complicated to say the least. It’s the very reason why most horror fans have heard of Texarkana, but it’s not exactly a positive thing to be remembered for. We see characters, including a pastor, who take issue with the movie for sensationalizing the deaths of 5 very real people back in 1946.
One character even remarks how the town was just getting over the trauma of the murders and the hysteria when the 1976 movie came along and brought it all back. The same could be said for films like The Amityville Horror where the movie became so popular that the homeowners of that iconic house had to change the street address and replace the signature windows to make it less recognizable.
Even after the release of The Conjuring, the real life house where the Perron family lived was bombarded by tourists, so much so that the homeowner sued Warner Brothers. There’s a definite level of sensationalism that occurs when you make a horror movie based on real life. In many ways the 2014 film is heavily critical of the 1976 for even existing, all while technically doing the same thing.
It begs the question, does it dishonor real life victims whose tragic deaths are made into “exciting” kills in a slasher movie. The Town that Dreaded Sundown (2014) taps into this, but admittedly doesn’t take it as far as it could.
Falling Short of Classic Status
2014 was something of a stellar year for horror with iconic releases like It Follows, The Babadook, Oculus, Starry Eyes, Clown, As Above So Below, and many more. Many of these have stood the test of time, and nearing a decade from their release are still discussed regularly.
The sequel/reboot of The Town the Dreaded Sundown however is largely absent from these same recognitions, which is strange considering how much more unique of a concept it was. The reason largely lies more so with its overall execution.
It comes in very strong with its meta approach and deep dive into the philosophy of horror itself, but it kind of turns into another “cheesy murder mystery remake of a classic horror film” much like 2009’s My Bloody Valentine, and 2010’s Silent Night.
When it’s reflecting on commentating on the original film and its effects today, it’s quite fascinating, but when it’s trying to weave a mystery that results in a cheesy twist, it really limits itself.
It also doesn’t help that from a visual standpoint, the movie itself was shot digitally and put through a filter that was meant to use color to create mood. But for many scenes, it just gives the movie a very washed out look.
Had it been a little better put together, The Town the Dreaded Sundown (2014) could have had a much larger impact on horror itself, and we may have seen more sequels take the meta approach of having the characters watch and reference the first movie as a movie.
Either way, it will always deserve credit and recognition for trying a completely different and inimitable approach in a sea of cheap pretenders.