THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (2014) is not exactly a remake of the cult classic, and not exactly a sequel. It starts with a narrated montage about the real life 1946 unsolved murder spree and the filming of the 1976 movie about it. And then it’s a fictional story in the same town of Texarkana circa 2013 and the annual Halloween night drive-in showing of the original movie.
A young couple, Jami (Addison Timlin, DERAILED) and Corey (Spencer Treat Clark, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, and Bruce Willis’s son in UNBREAKABLE) are on a first date, but she doesn’t like this kind of movie, so they leave. To me they were immediately likable enough to be the leads, so as I watched them drive away I told myself I better not get used to them, they’re gonna be the ones that get killed at the beginning to kick off the story. Sure enough they go park and out of the woods comes a guy with a bag on his head just like the infamous local serial killer nicknamed “The Phantom.”
I mean, look at this bastard, bathed in the red of tail lights:
It’s a scary mask on its own, but it’s also weighted with creepy associations: the original crimes, the original movie, the cover of the original movie, the similarity to the Zodiac crimes, the scenes in the ZODIAC movie… and then he comes out of the dark and he’s so cruel and you don’t know why and you should hear his voice. Terrifying shit.
But, against the formula, Jami escapes. Stumbles out of the woods and collapses under the screen where everyone is watching the original movie. This is her story. She already seems like a Final Girl because she’s the Drew Barrymore that got away, and now she’s digging deeper than the police to solve the mystery.
It should be said that these police are not bumbling, even though they’re sometimes goofy. Anthony Anderson (EXIT WOUNDS) plays “Lone Wolf” Morales, the Texas Ranger in charge of the investigation. Which is weird because the original crime and movie had “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas in charge. This also has a character named Sparkplug (John Donnell), which was director Charles B. Pierce’s character in the original. So maybe it is supposed to be kind of a remake?
Lone Wolf is full of bluster and you expect him to be an asshole, but he invites Jami to share her theories and shuts down the others who don’t want to hear it. “I want my entire team to hear what you have to say. If you think it’s important, we think it’s important.” He makes her feel so supported that she smiles!
But that seems too good to be true, and only makes you afraid you can’t trust him, adding him to a long list of red herrings that she encounters in the course of her investigation, including Nick (Travis Tope, INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE), a file clerk who helps/crushes on her. The police force is stacked with notable faces: Gary Cole (THE RING TWO), the great Ed Lauter (DEATH WISH 3, THE ARTIST), and Joshua Leonard from THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, now grown into a genuine character actor. Also you got the late Edward Herrmann (FREEDOM ROAD), in one of his last roles, as a reverend and radio preacher. Suspicious. I suspect him.
One character I didn’t expect to see: the fictional son of original film director Charles B. Pierce. Charles Jr. (Denis O’Hare, J. EDGAR) meets with them and shares his own theories from a believably cramped home full of memorabilia and footage left over from his father’s career. Well, only from THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN. Too bad they don’t seem to have had the rights to include some LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK shit.
As he claimed that The Phantom identity is passed down through generations I thought for a second “oh shit, this is the dark and gritty reimagining of THE PHANTOM,” but on second thought maybe that’s not what he meant.
Even with this large ensemble to deal with it finds time for thoughtful touches. There’s a conversation between Jami and her grandmother (Veronica Cartwright, ALIEN, THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK) about what it was like to live through the murders and then the movie about them. There’s plenty about Jami dealing with the guilt of moving on with her life, and even being blamed and slut-shamed by Corey’s grieving mother for having parked with her son.
Though this didn’t get much of a release, it seems more cinematic and visually lush than the average horror movie. The opening includes an impressive tracking shot through the drive-in that introduces about a half dozen characters as the protagonist’s car pulls out. It’s a stylistically aggressive movie, with Argento-y colors, warm, vivid lighting before sundown, and the type of attention-grabbing camera gimmicks that many hate and I love.
A few of the flourishes seem unintentionally disorienting, and I think they use this specific type of shot a few too many times:
Also, arguably too many cool reflection shots (in windows, TVs, eyes, etc.)
but a few overreaches are a fair trade for the overall gorgeous look of the movie. Hats off to cinematographer Michael Goi (MOONSTALKER, WELCOME TO DEATH ROW). He shot alot of American Horror Story, and one of the producers here is Ryan Murphy, so maybe that’s how he ended up on this.
I also like the way they splice in grimy little flashes of the 1976 version, both reminding the audience of the actual basis of the movie they’re watching and of the slasher’s possible inspiration within the movie. It’s the only sort-of-remake that does its own comparison to the original.
Regardless of any meta-cleverness, this is legit horror. The attacks are intense and brutal in a heart-beating-fast type of way more than a bummer kind of way. We kinda know what’s gonna happen when a couple has passionate sex in their motel room and the man leaves for the vending machine. But we don’t necessarily expect her to SPOILER look out and see her boyfriend’s face… as the killer uses his severed head like a rock to smash through the window! She makes a run for it, jumps out a window and is immediately dealing with a compound fracture. Painful to watch. And she doesn’t give up.
It’s slick enough to feel more like a fun thriller than a view into the abyss, yet it has a willing-to-cross-a-line attitude that keeps you on your toes. Like, spoiler, when she leaves town with her grandma and the poor old lady muses that “I’ve never left Texas my whole life. This means something.” She stays in the car at the gas station and while we watch Jami get her a danish and some bottled water we agonize about whether or not they’re really gonna do what it sure as hell seems like they’re gonna do.
A killer attacking couples as they make out in cars is the hoariest shit in the book, but it’s also what this real guy did, so we have it again here. Guy kills couples after or during sex. But they find novel ways to do it, and they have something I’ve never seen in a movie before: a gay couple in a lover’s lane type situation. Their not-knowing-how-to-do-this vulnerability quickly bonds us to them before the most extravagantly gimmicky sequence, a chase through a sign graveyard (Texarkana’s answer to the famous one I visited in Vegas I guess) leading to a redo of the original’s craziest kill.
But like so many slasher whodunits you find out who’s behind the mask and hear the motive and suddenly the whole thing goes down a couple notches. It’s a tough corner they painted themselves into. The original movie creeps people out largely because it tells this story of real murders that were never solved, a masked face that was never revealed. To give us an answer this time lets all the air out of the creepiness. And they should’ve known that. On the other hand, just because the original movie was inconclusive doesn’t mean this has to be. This doesn’t even purport to be real, this is fiction. And nobody wants a fictional murder mystery where you never find out who did the murder. So I don’t know if there’s a winning strategy for this one.
This did film partly in the real Texarkana, home town of Ross Perot as well as Tesla lead singer Jeff Keith. It seems a little morbid to make up fake murders as a sequel to a movie about real murders and film it in the actual place, but I suppose 70 years later people aren’t gonna be too sensitive about it. I guess today’s tragedy is the distant future’s campfire story.
Screenwriter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa did the more straightforward CARRIE remake and, like practically everybody else on this, had worked with Ryan Murphy on Glee. First time feature director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon had done episodes of both Glee and American Horror Story. Before that he’d been a second unit director on random movies: LUCKY NUMBERS, BEWITCHED, BABEL. The year after THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN he had a huge Sundance hit with ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL. I haven’t seen that, but based on this it’s not surprising if he went on to do something interesting. This is a good one. It can’t match the seedy creep factor of the original, but it makes up for it in craftsmanship.