I discovered The Town That Dreaded Sundown by chance through a random search on Netflix for classic horror movies. After doing some quick reading on it I found out that, despite its praise, cult following, and even references in pop culture, it never got a DVD release until just last year. Something about that is pretty remarkable to me; almost stands as a testament to the power of drive-thru cinema, VHS, and classic word-of-mouth. Anyway, it’s based on a true story, like many a horror movie around this era, so that really intrigued me. Upon watching it, however, I came to realize that it’s essentially a film that is made up of some rather impressive parts, but also contains so many unfortunate drawbacks that hinder its effectiveness as a compelling horror flick. Overall, I didn’t enjoy it very much at all.
I must stress, however, that there is plenty about this film that is surely steeped in good intention and creativity. In ways that I’m certain were intended to mirror The Texas Chain Saw Massacre from two years prior, the film attempts to capture its events in as realistic a way as possible, even employing aspects of documentary filmmaking to its narrative. The plot is essentially rather slow-burn, as much of the action only really consists of policemen and other authority figures sitting around and discussing how to handle the predicament at hand. And when the actual murders do occur, they are filmed very well and succeed at being as tense and gripping as the film intends on.
Sadly, the vast potential The Town That Dreaded Sundown undoubtedly possesses is wasted by a number of follies that are completely, unfortunately distracting. One of the most glaring annoyances is its totally unnecessary voiceover narration. I understand that this is intending to fall in line with the general documentary-like feel of the film, but the only thing it did for me was force me out of any instance of unbridled escapism I had while watching the film. In general, the vast majority of the movie consists of mere spoken exposition of what the situation consists. The bizarre choice of narration only makes this more insulting, as the overlying method of “tell, don’t show” remains a consistent nuisance; almost as if the filmmaker doesn’t trust the viewers into reaching their own conclusions with the story.
Another thing. I’m all for humor in horror, from the grotesque slapstick of Evil Dead 2 and Dead Alive, to the more subtle jests in The Wicker Man. However, the moments of comic relief found in this particular film reveal much sloppiness and simply aren’t funny or enjoyable. The filmmaker’s idea of adding a bit of light-heartedness into a dismal plot consists of inexplicable adding a cop in drag into the mess, as if there remains no trust, reliability, or respect to its audience whatsoever. These scenes are embarrassing, and only further detach the spectator from the realism of the situation at hand – which should be more of the focus of this film, not engaging in silly comic relief moments at the expense of its dignity.
I cannot stress how disappointed I am that this film wasn’t better. In many respects, it had the potential to be a strong follow-up to the genuinely scary Texas Chain Saw Massacre, especially in the ways that it employs many of the elements that this predecessor perfected. Instead, its tonally inconsistency proved to be its Achille’s heel. While the scenes surrounding the killer itself are rather well-done and properly unnerving, everything else enveloping these parts are just all over the place. I’m always happy that low-budget films can acquire its own devoted following but personally speaking, I cannot join in on the love for The Town That Dreaded Sundown.