Monday, October 20, 2014

Review: The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014)

by Patrick Bromley
A messy, largely forgotten '70s slasher gets a messy, largely ignored remake...and it might actually be an improvement.

Charles B. Pierce's 1976 docu-slasher The Town That Dreaded Sundown is the kind of horror movie that can stand to be remade. There's a lot to like about it, including the hooded Phantom Killer who's a clear precursor to Friday the 13th Part 2's Baghead Jason and the sort of documentary approach it takes to its narrative. But it's also a tonal mess, with scenes that are genuinely scary and upsetting butting right up against slapstick cops dressed up in drag. It is a singular horror film -- that should should always be appreciated -- but it's hardly untouchable.

The new remake directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (a television director best known for his partnership with Ryan Murphy, having directed many episodes of Murphy's shows Glee and American Horror Story, a show of which I've still not seen a single episode) loses much of the personality of the original, replacing it with lots and lots of flashy technique. Like, a lot. At times gorgeous, at others maddening, this new Town That Dreaded Sundown has a lot going for it but will probably best be remembered as a demo reel for its director. For better and for worse, he's the star.
Future Mrs. Riske Addison Timlin plays Jami, a fragile Texas girl whose parents were killed in a car wreck years earlier. She and the boy she likes (Spencer Treat Clark) go on a date to see the original Town That Dreaded Sundown at the drive-in, something that the entire town apparently does once a year. Jami's not into it and they leave to go park, which is where they are attacked by a man dressed exactly as the original movie's Phantom Killer. The boy doesn't survive; Jami does. Just as they had 65 years earlier, the town of Texarkana is forced to live in fear as a new Phantom Killer terrorizes and murders its inhabitants. But why? And does it have anything to do with the 1976 movie?

Yes, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is -- and I apologize for even invoking the word, overused as it has become -- a "meta" sequel, taking place in a world in which the 1976 film exists and has become an institution in Texarkana. The son of that film's director, Charles B. Pierce Jr., is actually a character in the remake. He's a real, living person, but here is played by True Blood's Denis O'Hare. I like this aspect of the movie, from the way it opens with an amazing tracking shot over a drive-in screen showing the original to the way it changes the context of the remake, but none of it ever really amounts to anything. There are some cool shots that flash back to the production of the 1976 film, usually recreating a scene that we've just seen updated in "real time" in the 2014 version. But that's all they are: cool shots.

This remake's entire reason for being appears to be cool shots. The good news is that a lot of them are cool; if you're a fan of show-offy filmmakers like Brian De Palma or Dario Argento, you'll love Gomez-Rejon's compositions and use of color saturation to create a mood of beautiful terror. Too many times, though, the style calls attention to itself as such, almost like the film is overcompensating for the lack of compelling material it presents. Some of the moments and images are the most beautiful and haunting I've seen in a horror film this year, but they're often the same ones that I wish would be given time to breathe. I don't know if it's "suggested" edits (apparently there's some behind-the-scenes gossip that implies what made it to the screen isn't exactly what was originally intended) or Gomez-Rejon's breathless need to get to the next shot, but many of the best images in the film are tossed away as just another shot, never giving us the opportunity to really soak them in. It offers great visuals but not enough patience.
The best point of comparison for this new Town That Dreaded Sundown is probably Scream, and not just for the meta-commentary, "We're-savvy-because-we've-seen-this-played-out-in-movies-before" way. This version of the Phantom Killer moves with the same speed and ferocity as the original Ghost Face, and when he stabs someone it's just as brutal. There is an intensity to these moments that's mostly missing from contemporary horror films; it's not scary, necessarily, but it avoids being mean-spirited and gets as close to "scary" as most modern slashers will allow. It's missing Scream's strong characterization (hardly anyone in the movie registers despite the presence of actors like Gary Cole, Ed Lauter, Joshua Leonard, Edward Herrmann, Veronica Cartwright and Anthony Anderson in the cast) and playful sense of humor, but does manage to lift a few other aspects. As it's probably still the best slasher of the last 20 years, that's not bad company in which to be.

I'm not saying The Town That Dreaded Sundown is as good as Scream. It's not. That's ok. In many ways, it is an improvement on the original. The script (by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Earl E. Smith) fails to develop any of its ideas more than, say, halfway -- Jami's tragic past, for example, has no bearing on the plot or her character when all is said and done -- but it's polished and confident enough  to make it over most of the rough spots. With another good pass on the screenplay and a better third act, the remake would have been really, really strong.
The undercooked script and visual somersaults keep the movie from New Classic status, but the fact that it was ever even in the running means that The Town That Dreaded Sundown is better than the average remake -- especially modern ones, which are only ever interested in slavishly copying every beat of their predecessors or using the IP to create their own generic knock-offs. Here's a remake that pays homage to the original by making that part of its very fabric, but which also manages to find its own energy and identity. I so want it to be great. I'll have to settle for it being good.


  1. If you ever saw "Boggy Creek II: The Legend Continues", you've seen the real Charles B. Pierce, Jr's acting ability. And (most likely) why he's not in this film. :-)

    1. Oh wow, that's him!? I watched boggy creek 2 just last week on MST3k. It's basically 2 hours of him telling the kids to be quiet.

    2. Both Pierces, senior (the old man telling the kids to be quiet) and junior (the shirtless kid that Crow begs to start doing push-ups, LOL) are in the movie. While I won't go so far as say he's a good director "The Town That Dreaded Sundown" and its companion piece, 1979's "The Evictors" (starring Michael Parks, Vic Morrow and "Suspiria's" Jessica Harper), have impressed me enough to admit I misjudged Pierce as a hack based on "Boggy Creek II." Granted, that movie is God-awful and totally deserving of the "MST3K" treatment it got, but it was an aberration and not the norm for a Pierce movie.

      "The Evictors" is streaming on Amazon Prime and Netflix Instant right now. Since the original "Town That Dreaded Sundown" is getting a lot of attention for the remake (it's one of the most reviewed movies in Scary Movie Month, probably because it's streaming) you should check it out if Pierce's work interests you. It's neither great or terrible but it'll get you another SMM review chance before the 31st. :-)

  2. Cheers Patrick. I like the original film. And almost 40 yrs have past so I am not bitter about the idea of a remake. I am also a fan of Baghead Jason. I come back when Ive had chance to see it to comment properly.

  3. I liked The Town that Dreaded Sundown (especially impressed by the transfer - Scream Factory polished it up very nicely) but you're right about it being a tonal mess - the goofball cops yank you right out and make you wonder what the hell you're watching. That tonal inconsistency would have made it ripe for a straight-up remake that played it completely straight (and dark), but I'm intrigued by the "meta" approach - will definitely check this out - great review.