by Patrick Bromley
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.
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.
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.