Movie Review: 'The Town That Dreaded Sundown' Blu-Ray



the town that dreaded sundown"Based on actual events" is a phrase you'll hear in a lot of movie trailers and see emblazoned across endless horror movie posters, but the truth about the "truth" is this: it's bullshit. For example, both Psycho's Norman Bates and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Leatherface claim to be "loosely based" on the notorious monster known as Ed Gein. So while it's probably true that the writers of both stories used their knowledge of Ed Gein to create a creepy villain, it's not like either film is a re-telling of the actual Ed Gein story. (For that you'll want to check out 1974's Deranged.)
And most "based on actual events" horror movies lack even the tangential connection that Psycho and Chainsaw do: someone once heard about a terrible exorcism gone wrong in South America, and voila: instant "fact-based" horror movie. That's not to say the statement is outright marketing b.s. every single time, but suffice to say that if you take "based on actual events" at face value, you're in serious trouble. 

I mention all that as a roundabout way of praising the low-budget but still crafty cult horror film known as The Town That Dreaded Sundown, "docu-drama"-style relic from 1976 that earns high grades for trying to deliver a scary movie while still paying respect to the actual events that inspired the flick. Of course several things have been altered to turn a real-life mid-'40s mini-panic into an entertaining horror film, but you probably won't find many low-budget horror films that even care about sticking to small moments of truth and accuracy.
Arguably the most accomplished feature from the late Charles B. Pierce (The Legend of Boggy Creek, The Norseman, The Evictors), the wonderfully titled The Town That Dreaded Sundown is, as mentioned above, based directly on a rash of assaults and murders that struck the town of Texarkana back in 1946. (The period design is one of this low-budget thriller's most admirable assets, come to think of it.) So while the movie offers a slightly stodgy "voice-over" narration and some moments that seem plucked straight out of "1970s police procedural 101" (including a few painful moments of cop-related comic relief), it also delivers some legitimately effective atmosphere, several cool character actors doing fine work, and a handful of sincerely creepy moments. 
I'll leave it to the horror scholars to decide if Jason's "bag head" design for Friday the 13th Part 2 was stolen or borrowed from The Town that Dreaded Sundown, but it's those little touches that make one realize that this relatively obscure horror title actually did make some sort of impact with other horror directors. In the department of random fun, it's worth noting that genre stalwarts Ben Johnson and Andrew Prine are in top (and enjoyably low-key) form -- plus there's a solid supporting turn from the lovely Dawn Wells. Best known as the adorable Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island, poor Ms. Wells is subjected to some horrifying stuff before all is said and done here.

Admirable more for its attention to detail and a sense of class regarding true-life murders than for any sort of wall-to-wall mayhem, The Town that Dreaded Sundown is a fascinating little obscurity that horror fans would be well advised to check out at least once. And since the film has been resurrected by Scream/Shout Factory, you can logically expect a handful of great supplements to complement the main feature: there's an excellent audio commentary with PhD historian Jim Presley and moderator Justin Beahm, a collection of interviews with Mr. Prine, Ms. Wells, and cinematographer Jim Roberson, and a bunch of bells/whistles like trailers, TV spots, a nifty old essay, and (yes!) a reversible DVD cover. I love those things.

They even went and threw in The Evictors as a bonus movie. It's a decent 1979 haunted house flick from Charles Pierce that stars Vic Morrow, Michael Parks, and Jessica Walter, and you've almost certainly never seen it. Hey, free movie, right?

And it has to be said at least once: I bet this blu-ray transfer looks better than the actual film ever did. To those who only know this movie from cable, VHS, or (gasp) UHF, you simply won't believe how smooth and pretty it looks now.

Read FEARnet's partner reviews of 'The Town That Dreaded Sundown'