You have to give credit to director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s “The Town That Dreaded Sundown.” The horror film, which made its world premiere September 20, 2014 at Fantastic Fest has ambition. In a sea of bland remakes, it’s at least striving for something different.
For those unfamiliar, the original “Town That Dreaded Sundown”, was a 1976 low-budget horror film, based on the real-life Phantom Killer murders which took place in the border town of Texarkana in 1946. The film sensationalized those events, drawing anger from local residents. But it left a lasting impression as a proto-slasher film. The fact that the real murderer was never caught gave it a terrifying aftertaste.
What makes the 2014 “Town” so intriguing is that it’s set in present-day Texarkana, and kicks off with local teenagers watching the original film at a drive-in theater. Shortly thereafter, the Phantom murders begin anew, sending locals into a panic. Had the original killer returned? How could he be so nimble if he was still alive? Or is this a copycat killer, or perhaps a supernatural force?
The narrative plays with all these possibilities, as seen through the eyes of Jami (Addison Timlin), a teenager who survived a Phantom attack and begins amateur sleuthing to uncover his identity. Timlin is an engaging actress, elevating her lines beyond rote exposition.
But her Nancy Drew investigation hits several speed-bumps, created by a large cast of vaguely sinister male characters who might (or might not) be the new Phantom.
This is where the film goes slightly off the rails. It’s a fascinating idea to reference the older film (as well as its director Charles B. Pierce), as well as investigate the unresolved aspects of the true-life case. But the story never quite gels, getting lost in the laconic navel gazing that hampered the original.
What it does get right, are some pretty scary set-pieces. Gomez-Rejon (“American Horror Story”) knows how to jolt audiences, and there are some cleverly constructed sequences (in particular, a cornfield stalking is masterfully crafted). Cinematographer Michael Goi gives the Phantom Killer’s sack-cloth masked visage an eerie luminance, and blesses the modestly budgeted slasher with a rich, textured sheen.
But some choices are odd. For a film that references a crime from the 40’s while being shot in present day (cell phones are omnipresent), why does everyone dress like they’re in John Carpenter’s 1978 “Halloween?” It’s clear the movie homages parts of that film, but given the original “Town” preceded that picture, it feels like an odd visual shorthand to crib from.
In the end, the whole meta, film referencing a film concept unravels much of the suspense, and the whodunit reveal is disappointing. In that respect, “Town” should have adopted the original’s concept of a killer never caught. Besides, that’s how it really happened, and makes it all the scarier.
Regardless, the fact that “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” aims to be more than the average slasher film is commendable. It may not fully stick the landing, but it’s a more cerebral premise than the genre (and the source film) are usually capable of delivering.
“The Town That Dreaded Sundown” will be released nationwide on October 16, 2014.