Published on October 29th, 2014 | by Craig Silliphant0
The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014)
Is it a remake? A sequel? A meta-movie? Whatever it is, the new version of The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a damn good time.
The new version of The Town That Dreaded Sundown [TTTDS] is a reasonably unique take on the idea of the sequel/reboot/whatever. The original film was released in 1976, a low budget slasher flick produced and directed by Charles B. Pierce, one of the first contemporary indie filmmakers. It spins a yarn about a Texas Ranger that is hunting for a masked serial killer who is killing folks in 1946 Texarkana, a town that lies on the border of Arkansas and Texas.
The film itself was loosely based on the real life ‘Moonlight Murders’ that happened in 46’, committed by a ‘Phantom Killer’ who was never caught. While the killings are fairly accurately represented in the film, they played fast and loose enough with the details that it actually caused some legal friction between the production and town officials (and one of the victim’s families even took legal action). The original movie is decently atmospheric, though punctuated by moments of comedy that don’t work well.
Over the years, TTTDS wormed its way into the psyche and culture of the town, and in 2003, they started showing the film at its annual ‘Movies in the Park,’ at nearby Spring Lake Park. And here is where the 2014 version comes in. In meta-fashion, the film supposes that the killings and the original movie both exist. Sort of similar to the way that Return of the Living Dead posits that Night of the Living Dead was based on real events, though, in this case, it actually was rooted in reality. So, the 1976 version of the movie exists in the universe of the remake/sequel/whatever.
We start at a drive in for a modern day showing of the original TTTDS, where young lovers Jami and Corey are watching the film. However, Corey notices that Jami isn’t enjoying it, so they slip off to Make Out Point to pull some tongue. Enter the bag-headed Phantom, who comes at them Zodiac-style, killing Corey. Jami manages to escape, and while the killings continue, she slips into sleuth mode, trying to identify the Phantom. Is it a copycat basing his kills on 65-year-old murders? Or something more sinister?
I wasn’t expecting much from the film, but I have to say it surprised me. It’s obviously low budget, but pretty well shot and constructed, utilizing tracking shots and other editing tricks and visual flair here and there. There’s a good cast of known character actors, like Lance E. Nichols (the dentist from Treme), Edward Herrmann (the head vampire from The Lost Boys), Gary Cole, Veronica Cartwright, and Anthony Anderson. Addison Timlin, who played Sasha on Californication, does a decent job as Jami, the scream queen turned detective.
Speaking of screams, the movie does a decent job with the suspense, wrapping you up in the lives of the characters a bit so that you actually care about what happens. It has at least a couple of good scares. There’s a scene in a cornfield that’s especially clever, as you see a woman being pursued by the killer. Shot from above, you can see both her and her attacker as they part the corn. When she comes up against a scarecrow that looks just like him, she screams (who wouldn’t) and gives away her position to the killer. It’s a suspenseful and well thought out scene.
TTTDS falls prey to some of the usual clichés from other horror movies, and it isn’t always concerned with making sense, but it usually feels like someone was putting thought into the proceedings. There are more than a few scenes where you feel that the town that dreads sundown doesn’t really dread sundown all that much, seeing as they’re still wandering the night streets and going to give each other blow jobs in remote areas. However, as the story goes, during the actual killings in Texarkana, people actually did still go to Lover’s Lane, though the town was gripped in panic. So, I dunno — should art imitate reality when reality doesn’t make good sense? Up to you to decide. Either way, it didn’t ruin the movie.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon is affiliated with one of my least favourite horror related things — American Horror Story. I only watched half of season one before I had to shut it off and condemn it as poorly written tripe. Maybe it got better, but what I saw was all freaky imagery with no discernable story to crawl inside your head and take root — all flash and no substance. But Gomez-Rejon has a chance to shine here with a smart script from Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, a comic book writer who has written for Marvel and on shows like Big Love. He also created Afterlife with Archie, which led to him becoming the Chief Creative Officer at Archie Comics.
My wife found the ending of TTTDS a tad far-fetched, but I thought it had a certain Scooby-Doo charm to it. It’s a clever script with stylish direction that belongs on the shelf beside the original. With the endless choice of low budget horror movies on your VOD and Netflix, it’s hard to know which ones are worth checking out — The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a definite recommendation.
Just for fun, here’s some art from the original — yes, that IS Mary Wells, aka, Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island.