2014 - 90 minutes
Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Written by: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Starring: Addison Timlin, Travis Tope, Veronica Cartwright, Spencer Treat Clark, Joshua Leonard, Anthony Anderson, Gary Cole, Edward Herrmann, Ed Lauter
A serial killer murdered five people in Texarkana in 1946. Those events inspired the 1976 low budget slasher flick The Town That Dreaded Sundown in which a man wearing a burlap sack over his head (several years before Friday the 13th Part 2) terrorizes the town that straddles the Texas-Arkansas border.
The 2014 version of The Town that Dreaded Sundown gives new meaning to “re-imagining” – a trend that has been a staple of the horror genre that last decade or so. The new film acknowledges the 1946 murders and uses them as basis for some plotting, but, interestingly, it also acknowledges that Charles B. Pierce’s 1976 film exists as well. In fact, characters in the new film watch it (probably a bit too much) in an inventive stroke of uber-meta that makes it stand out from the remake pack. Unfortunately, while all of the connectivity is unique, the film can’t quite juggle the history, the new characters, and the brutality of its slayings effectively enough to congeal into a completely fulfilling experience. It positions itself as a more brooding, largely humorless, Scream, and takes multiple cues from Wes Craven’s series, but the subversion isn’t as successful.
Texarkana teen Jami (Addison Timlin) is getting antsy at the town’s annual drive-in screening of the 1976 movie. Caring boyfriend Corey (Spencer Treat Clark) agrees to leave, but takes her to Lover’s Lane, which probably isn’t a good idea. A bag-wearing, knife-and-gun-wielding maniac appears from the darkness and begins a new reign of terror. As bodies pile up, Jamie – our virginal heroine with a sad backstory – does some sleuthing to try and find a connection between the “Phantom” murders of ’46, the ’76 movie, and the contemporary carnage.
A veteran of the genre-twisting TV series American Horror Story, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon has a lot of success mixing in elements of the original film with fresh updates. His is not a period piece like the original, but instead portrays a present-day town frozen in time and still coming to grips with its tragic past. Main Street is an always abandoned string of quaint storefronts, Corey drives a ‘70s muscle car, and homes don’t look like they’ve been updated in decades. I mean, the kids don’t even have iPhones (though they do have cell phones) and they use microfiche instead of Google to track down old news articles. What doesn’t make a lot of sense in the old/new mixture is having characters with the same names as the previous film. I guess their parents were fans.
Cleverness fades a bit in the film’s back half when it settles into typical psycho killer tropes and big reveals that feel familiar. Red herrings and a cursory police investigation (led by some impressive actors – Gary Cole and Ed Lauter and Blair Witch alum Joshua Leonard) zap some excitement; as does the idea of the new killer re-creating the sequence of the first movie, leading to a feeling of stated set-up then follow through. Though the repeat of the infamous trombone impalement is ridiculously creepy. The film is always best when it defies expectations, as in a particularly brutal set of murders at a motel early on. While well-directed and competently acted, The Town That Dreaded Sundown remix hits too many sour notes to be a genre milestone. Call it a firmly staked milepost.