Written by: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Starring: Addison Timlin, Veronica Cartwright, and Anthony Anderson
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"I'm going to do it again and again until you make them remember."
One of the most evocative and infamous titles in slasher movie lore, The Town that Dreaded Sundown conjures various ghosts. Primarily looming is the notorious Phantom Killerís Moonlight Murder spree from 1946, an inexplicable burst of violence that has cast a long shadow over Texarkana, the small town nestled between the Texas-Arkansas border. But thereís also the curious case of Charles B. Pierceís film itself, a sort of embryonic slasher by way of a docudrama that crept from its directorís backyard to drive-in screens everywhere. Just as the Phantom haunts Texarkana, so too does Town continue to resonate with genre fans as a perfect cult objectówhich is to say itís weird, misshapen, not entirely successful, but wholly distinguishable. Thereís nothing quite like it.
As such, the only thing more inevitable than a remake attempt would be the skepticism surrounding such an attempt. Certainly, nobody wants to see The Town that Dreaded Sundown repackaged as the latest prefabricated product to roll off of Blumhouseís assembly line. Thankfully, producer Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story) had no interest in that, either, as he and screenwriter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa have devised a clever spiritual sequel rather than a straightforward remake. If nothing else, itís refreshing to discuss a slasher film in terms of its intriguing story.
In keeping with the originalís cinema verite approach, this update purports to be a true story, with Pierceís film acting as a launching point. As an opening voiceover (quite truthfully) explains, Texarkana still holds an annual screening of The Town That Dreaded Sundown each Halloween. Itís here that a magnificent crane shot lays our scene, as director Alfonso Gomez-Rejonís camera glides over a drive-in screen to reveal a throng of movie-goers sharing in their townís infamous history. Some arenít so eager, though, such as high school senior Jami Lerner (Addison Timlin), who begs her boyfriend (Spencer Treat Clark) to leave. Heís happy to oblige, especially since he sees it as an excuse to drive off into the nearby woods to make out. As if preternaturally summoned, the Phantom suddenly reappears and interrupts the two lovebirds in an echo of the scene playing on the screen up the road and announces that a new reign of terror is set to begin.
Simultaneously off-kilter and totally familiar, opening hooks donít come much more enticing than that. Itís the sort of prologue that became increasingly familiar after Pierce helped to establish it in the original Sundown, yet it has an added meta-dimension here, as this new Phantom has set himself to both remaking a film and recreating history. If the original film was a dramatized reenactment, this one is a screwy bit of speculative fiction that picks up the thread started by Pierceís conclusion, which imagines the Phantom still roaming the streets of Texarkana, possibly even attending the premiere of his own movie. What if the Moonlight Murders inspired someone to take up the Phantom mantle 60 years later?
Thatís about the extent of its musings, though, which is disappointing but somehow agreeable all at once. On the one hand, youíd like to see this rich mythology mined for something more than clichť teenage slasher beats and gory death sequences. You sense that the film has something to say about repressed trauma and its effect on individuals and communities, but it hardly articulates it. There are times when the Moonlight Murders feel like window dressing, there only to provide some familiar iconography for the latest slasher film. Occasionally, though, the film makes some odd, idiosyncratic peeks into the lore, such as when its characters visit Pierceís son (a fictionalized take on an actual person, played by Denis OíHaire), a neat detour that allows the true story to still inform this filmís twists and turns.
On the other hand, forgiving it for using the original film as a backdrop for what becomes a rather routine slasher is easy because, well, sometimes thatís exactly what you want: an unapologetic splatter-fest where a severed head doubles as a blunt object for smashing grungy motel windows. This is especially true when a film performs the routine with the type of gonzo skill on display here. In a stark departure from Pierceís shaggy docudrama approach, Gomez-Rejonís direction is a delirious exercise in stylish ultraviolence that invokes likes of Bava and De Palma with otherworldly lighting and fluid, invigorating camerawork that extend beyond the mean, blood-streaked murder scenes.
Typically the highlight of slashers, these sequences work in concert with the fantastic atmospheric imagery strewn throughout. Even when itís bathed in golden sunlight, Texarkana takes on an unreal hue, while the nighttime sequences recapture the genuinely eerie feel of the original, with a chase scene through a moonlit corn field providing an especially noteworthy highlight. Just as the filmís story takes audiences through the holiday season (it opens on Halloween and climaxes just after Christmas), its style feels like a tour of three decades of slasher modes: the garish, frenzied panache of 70s European gialli, the unrepentant violence of the 80s, and the slick, clever chic of the 90s (without all the damned irony) form a crazy quilt
Given how relatively barren the slasher landscape has been, The Town that Dreaded Sundown is an inspired return to form, all the way down to its cast. It boasts a plucky final girl in Timlin, who reminds me of a young Sally Field, and sheís supported by the likes of Ed Lauer, Edward Hermann, Gary Cole, Veronica Cartwright, and Anthony Anderson. Everyone from Texarkanaís overly-zealous religious fanatics (Hermann) to its hardass, Texas Ranger interlopers (Anderson) is represented by a colorful cast that brings the town alive with a put-upon regional flavor that hearkens back to Pierceís approach.
Despite its obvious digressions from its source text, The Town that Dreaded Sundown is a faithful companion piece. The most effective remakes come from a place of respect without resorting to reverence, and Murphy and company arenít afraid to explore this mythos for all its grisly possibilities. At no point does it feel like the property has been dusted off out of obligation to be exploited, but you donít mind that the film feels exploitative and a little seedy at times. Where Pierce sensationalized by dramatizing true events, this one embellishes with blood, guts, and style. Maybe the result is a little weird, misshapen, not entirely successful, but itís also quite distinguishableóand, as far as remakes go, thereís nothing quite like it. Buy it!
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