The Legacy in The Towns that Dreaded Sundown

Halloween helped the slasher genre make a name for itself in 1978. As everyone knows, there are a dozen or two other films that previously helped define the genre. Peeping Tom and Psycho are two films that always get thrown into the conversation. Both came out in 1960, and many other films also influenced the genre pre-1960. But I’m more interested in 1976’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown and its relationship with the 2014 film of the same name that is far more interested in legacy, and the evolution of the slasher genre.

In 1946, in the town of Texarkana, Texas, there was a murderer known as the Phantom Killer.  Across four months, he attacked eight people and murdered five. These series of murders was the basis of the ‘76 film. Like many other films around that era, it would claim that it is based on a true story. There was massive success from another based-in Texan film that came out two years prior, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It led the charges with its most significant pull, “based on true events.” Now, we know that Leatherface’s adventures are entirely fictional, but bits and pieces were picked and inspired by Ed Gein. When Sundown was released, there was enough changed and fabricated, but the events were still ac¡tually based on actual events. At least more than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

The difference also was that Sundown treated its film as if it was almost a documentary filled with reenactments. The film has an omniscient narrator that always dictates exactly how things were, and who worked on the case. It was as if the narrator was reading out the police descriptions of the crime. The first half of the film is filled with partial comedy or not taking anything serious thanks to characters like Sparkplug, who doesn’t seem to know how to find a good middle ground when driving. 

As the film continues, we get more and more realized moments with The Phantom, and eventually, we get more detailed “intimate” moments in his spree as he uses a knife attached to a trombone to murder a woman. The way we see these moments be replayed and reenacted on screen, it’s hard not to picture and imagine another serial killer that also had a film based on his spree, the Zodiac killer. 

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon came from working with Ryan Murphy on Glee and American Horror Story and directed The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014). And from acknowledging the first film, leads to an entire legacy of this town and film. The first film ends with a crowd about to watch the same movie we just watched, and its fitting that the remake/sequel begins with a group that is watching the same film at a drive-in. According to the 2014 version, the town of Texarkana had almost moved on from the incidents at first. The town adopted and avoided strangers when originally, they were friendlier, and now they’re more fearful of strangers. When the ‘76 version came out, the city relived their pains and the losses of real people. And now the film is a Halloween tradition, where every year the film is always played at theatres. The town can’t escape its past and pain, but as time went on, the world got became violent and terrifying. But they haven’t moved on yet.

This is evident very quickly in the film, with the death of Corey Holland, we see a far more violent and brutal attack. A lot of the deaths were more implied and hidden in cuts and barely shown in the original. But slashers have evolved since the time of Texas Chainsaw (which is brutal and terrifying but doesn’t show much). Modern horror audiences revel in the blood and guts, so they revved the kills up. In comparison, Alfonso’s work in the second season of American Horror Story is more intense and graphic than older slasher films. Not to mention the surge of “torture porn” films whose sole purpose is to have bodies that will meet gruesome ends with no sense of any character development. 

Alfonso shot onto the movie scene like a cannon thanks to all the incredible style that he helped curate but also stole off Asylum, the second season of AHS. The use of dutch angles, the beautiful camera work as it glides in the scene, and the excessive use of split diopter shots. When you’re watching the 2014 version, it’s easy to see it as a remnant of the Grindhouse era but shot through digital cameras and lots of glamour. This almost sounds redundant, but from the title cards and the set decoration scream “‘70s.” It’s as if Texarkana hasn’t moved on from the atrocities that hurt their town almost 70 years ago. Even all the kills that occur in the film are adaptations and reenactments of the original, albeit a bit more violent, but the same order and gaps in time nonetheless.

The Gomez-Rejon helmed film is fascinating because it questions what happens to the survivors who have their traumas shown as entertainment and movies. But yet, it still does the same thing. But by pushing the film to discuss that and then show us entirely fictional events, it allows for creative freedom. 

The first film pre-dates the slasher hype of the ’80s, and the second lives amidst the post-Scream era of self-referencing and meta-based films. Since the second film holds onto the original’s legacy and style, the 2014 film is both of the moment and a love letter to the original. To this day, the 2014 film has made less than $200,000, which is heartbreaking. There is so much love for the genre, and the sub-genre and even Alfonso’s home state of Texas.