Thursday, November 20, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014)

The 2014 remake of Charles B. Pierce’s The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976) from American Horror Story (2011 - ) producer Ryan Murphy is a crafty, clever, complex horror movie that is as much a sequel to the original as it is a re-do. 

Specifically, the new film involves a killer who deliberately apes the murders depicted in the seventies film, and in the exact order of the seventies film too.

But there’s also an extra layer of storytelling here because the Pierce film was, in fact, based on the real “moonlight murders” in Texarkana in 1946.

So this is a remake/sequel to a fictionalized version of a true story and unsolved crimes from sixty-six years ago.

Got that?

The makers of the film certainly do, and they squeeze every ounce of “meta” self-reflexive post-modernism out of their byzantine premise, but in a joyful, imaginative and often dazzling fashion.

This Town that Dreaded Sundown actually incorporates into its body a substantial amount of footage from the original film. So much so, in fact, that a viewing requires a great deal of engagement so as to recognize the original material and separate it from the modern re-enactments. This approach sets up an intriguing dynamic for the audience, one in which you must gaze at the ’76 film, the details of the original original murders, and then the on-going attacks (the subject of the film), all through a kind of fun house mirror. It's like we're watching a dissertation about objective truth, but seen through various entertainment and historical lenses.

One thoroughly-impressive (if bizarre) scene in the film finds the killer tracking down two high-school victims to a junkyard of cast-off corporate signs. The discarded signs themselves spell out a message in symbols, bringing lettered order to a jumble of information; just as all together the moonlight murders, the Charles B. Pierce film, and the remake form a kind of unified “whole" story.  

All three “events” -- true crime, original movie, and remake -- branch into and out of one another, twisting, turning, and intertwining, thus leading the audience in new and surprising directions and revelations. 

It’s a confident, ambitious dance, and this is a fun, accomplished horror film.

In the end, the remake fails only its final step. The last act reveal of the masked killer’s identity is highly reminiscent of Scream (1996), which itself name-checked Town in its dialogue. This final act resolution can’t quite live up to all the meta bouncing around that has led up to it, and in the end, the remake sacrifices its sense of nimble, gamely intelligence for a “talking killer explains it all” finale.

Despite the disappointing final moments, this is a remake/sequel that is alive with its own potential and possibilities, which treads into some amazingly frightening and gruesome territory, and which, in the final analysis, evidences a great deal of respect and love for the B-movie that Pierce made all those years ago, and still makes viewers dread night-fall.

“It was like the town was being tested and no one knew why.”

Young Jami (Addison Timlin) -- who lives with her grandmother Lillian (Veronica Cartwright) -- wants to bail out of the yearly showing in Texarkana of The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976). Her new boyfriend, Corey (Spencer Treat Clark) agrees, and they drive together to a secluded lover’s lane.

Unfortunately, a copy-cat Phantom Killer, acting out the first scene of the Charles B. Pierce film, stalks them. He attacks the couple, brutally slashing Corey, and chasing Jami through the woods. He lets her live, however, as his messenger.  

His message? He is committing these murders for someone named “Mary.”

The local police, including Sheriff Underwood (Ed Lauter) and Deputy Tillman (Gary Cole) are assisted by celebrated Texas “lone wolf” ranger Morales (Anthony Anderson), who very quickly determines that the new killer is staging in real life the death sequences from the 1976 film.

While Jami attempts to discover the identity of Mary, the killings continue, and she befriends a young man named Nick (Travis Tope), a clerk who permits her access to the original case files. 

The search for the truth leads the duo to Charles Pierce Jr. (Denis O’Hare), the son of Charles B. Pierce. He discusses how his father had always planned a sequel to Town that Dreaded Sundown, and had even ferreted out who the original Moonlight Murderer might be…

 “The past is alive, all around us.”

In spirit and detail The Town that Dreaded Sundown (2014) absolutely honors and lives up to its predecessor.

In my review of the original, earlier in the week, I wrote of Pierce’s film that its final nifty trick was how cleverly it wrote itself into the real Phantom Killer history and mythos. The last scene of the film found the killer actually attending the movie, still at large thirty years later.

This remake/sequel extends that trick, with the Pierce film itself (and the suspicions of its director) ultimately taking center stage. The 1976 film is the well-spring from which the murderer’s activities spring, at the same time that the details of the actual case play a crucial role in the motivation, if not the execution of those crimes.

The 1976 film is the outline, in other words, for all the gruesome death scenes in this remake. 

Now I know what you’re thinking: most horror film remakes -- Halloween (2007), Friday the 13th (2009), A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) – also meticulously re-stage famous “kill” sequences from their predecessors. That's why they are reviled. They tread over beloved territory, and usually not very effectively. 

But the difference here is that The Town that Dreaded Sundown re-imagination not only follows the outline of the original…it actually incorporates footage of the original kills too, and then re-parses the essence of those scenes for the present. The film is thus designed to invite comparison, to allow the audience to compare and contrast murders, and therefore to understand the killer's reasons for re-staging the old crimes

Some of the re-parsing here is authentically clever and timely too. In the original film, two high school band members, after playing in the orchestra at the prom, go out to lover’s lane. The Phantom Killer shows up, and attacks the trombone player with her own musical instrument (a metaphor for the thrust and retract of sexual intercourse). 

Fully updated to 2014, the remake finds two band members again heading out on a date late at night, and this time, the victims are gay. But the scene goes deeper than this surface description indicates. All around the victims lay cast-off corporate signs (for drug stores, shops, and the like), and taken together, they relate an important message about the killer and his purpose, at least if anyone bothers to read them.  Look for the word LEGACY in one composition, for example.  

The s cene also toys with the audience, prominently displaying signs that read “Dead End,” or other messages about the danger lurking nearby, unnoticed. This scene is a crystallization of the movie’s entire approach to its subject matter. To wit, the remake has selected sequences from the original film as symbols of that story, and then revealed how -- in explicit accordance with the dialogue – “the past is alive, all around us.”  

Those symbols of the past, from the 1970s movie (which is played yearly at a drive-in), to the secrets of Jami’s past, take on new, frightening shapes in 2014.  The lettering in the junkyard isn’t just junk, but bits and pieces of the past, still alive -- still meaningful -- but unnoticed in our present.

Given such a cerebral approach, it pays to watch the film closely. For example, there is a montage here, early on, of the town of Texarkana “dreading” sundown. People lock their doors, hammer boards over their windows, and retreat inside as afternoon turns to dusk.  There are new shots, I believe, in the montage, and shots straight out of the Pierce film as well. This scrambling of time periods is another way to visually remind the audience that the past is alive, and all around us. For some, sixty (or thirty…) years have passed without event, and for some, that span has been spent in seething rage and resentment.

In terms of straight-up horror, the murder sequences in the remake are staged with glorious, brutal abandon.  One scene involving a man coming home from war (and remember, the original film took place just eight months after the end of World War II….) and meeting with his lover at a motel, ends with a harrowing chase, and, literally, bloody murder.  

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon also does an extraordinary job of rethinking and re-staging the Dawn Wells/Helen Reed attack. The rough confines of the scene are repeated (a bullet through a farmhouse window, and a terrifying pursuit through the corn field), but the details are quite different, especially in regards to Gary Cole’s character and his final moments on this Earth.

For a film that moves with such smooth confidence and brutal intelligence for so much of its running time, it is a downright shame that the climax ultimately doesn’t live up to the superior set pieces that punctuate The Town that Dreaded Sundown. 

The talking killer cliché is one that has been over-used since the Scream films, and ultimately in movies of this type, it is more powerful – and more genuinely terrifying -- to be afforded no clear understandable psychological or human motive for a crime spree like the Phantom’s. The idea that makes the original so scary (and which makes the 1946 crimes so scary) is that we never knew “the why” or the “whom.”  This sequel, ultimately, must perform back-flips of exposition regarding the contemporary killings when it might have been better, simply, not to know.

My assessment of the finale does not mean that The Town that Dreaded Sundown is a bad film. It’s actually very good, very well-made. It just doesn’t stick the landing. 

What makes up for this deficit, perhaps, is the quality of the set-pieces and the symbolic thinking that clearly went into the film's structure. Also, as a fan of Charles B. Pierce, I must confess I felt a lump in my throat in the scenes involving his son.  His boy has never gotten over the death of his father and “best friend” and in some way, this aspect of the tale feels like a love letter to the regional filmmaker, who accomplished so much with so little.  This sub-plot fits in with the film’s leitmotif as well, that the past is alive and all around us.  Pierce’s son wants so much to live in that past, with his father, that his life now is something of a shambles.

Long-time horror fans wince each time a new remake of a classic is announced, and sometimes for good reason (A Nightmare on Elm Street 2010, j’accuse), but The Town that Dreaded Sundown is not one of the ones that will debauch you.  

Instead, the film cherishes the 1976 original and its legendary maker, and suggests that the sun will not fall on this fearsome Texarkana legend for years to come.


  1. Part I


    I must second what cannot be stressed enough, with this not being just another horror movie remake à la the Bay factory or whatever big studio rummaging its archive to simply to cash-in on 'classic' status familiarity. Though having since found its niche cult audience, it’s not as if the 1976 original was ever part of the larger lexicon of horror cinema akin to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Friday the 13th, Evil Dead or even comparable to minor league titles such as The Funhouse, Sleepaway Camp, Maniac Cop etc. I can’t imagine this remakequel came to pass primarily because some studio exec handpicked a follow-up to the original with dollar signs for eyes.

    No, the 2014 The Town that Dreaded Sundown is undoubtedly devoted and high-concept. And while the film’s self-reflexivity is apparent, unlike the Scream series or Cabin in the Woods, it never once becomes pithy self-aware or congratulatory with any kind of meta commentary on the genre; rather, the internal referencing remains specifically yet organically in-house to its predecessor, and is played in earnest, though not without some black bits of levity.

    Frankly, I was surprised how much I liked this movie. I was never a big slasher guy. I know the genre but have never loved it. I’ve seen the original but never studied it. I reckon this new version winning me over comes down to two factors: 1) its utmost sincerity in redefining the story and refolding the myth, 2) its striking cinematic craft. To be clear, I don’t think the movie works entirely, but it is passionately committed to a vision distinct from recent horror revivals lacking thematic resonance or, alternately, those obsessed with being precocious.

    Unlike nearly all of today’s monotone horror films, Sundown is flushed with a cinematic catchall for Dutch angles, split diopters, wide lensing and full width compositions; a phosphorescent vibrancy of dusks, dawns, magic hours, splashes of reds, temperate golds and blues; with filtered lighting artifacts and halos galore. I’ve read numerous online reviews and opinions criticizing director Gomez-Rejon for showing off one too many pointless exercises in such aesthetics—the proverbial 'style over substance' denouncement. I disagree. I think there was a clear intention to create a heightened movie world where anointed imagery further blurs into a kind of Penrose staircase the storied setting together with its premised killings copycatted from a real but fictional retelling of the real-life 'Moonlight Murders' from decades prior.

    Doubles are one of the film’s central running motifs, given the town of Texarkana being split by a state line over two separate counties, the end reveal of two separate killers and the opening scene where the Twin Star Drive-In literally juxtaposes the two versions of the movie itself: a panicked young survivor of a murder attack stumbling under the drive-in screen showing the 1976 original, then abruptly stamped over with a reimagined title card. Imagery as an unreality abounds. Jami witnessing her boyfriend’s murder as a filmic projected shadow from the red taillight hints the presence of illusions both internal, regarding the immediate circumstances, and external, with herself existing inside a movie about a movie.

  2. Part II

    There are odd curiosities courtesy of Gomez-Rejon, such as an early evening scene where, in a single take, Jami listens to her grandmother (Nancy Cartwright, always a pleasure) recount the horrific history of Texarkana as the two walk through their home turning off various lamps and overhead lights, then turning on others in their bedrooms; a weird, unspoken game of illuminating. It’s a visual cue that reoccurs later in the film during a spooky night scene where Jami’s second love interest, Nick, strolls towards the camera over one front house lawn after another, activating sensor porch lights from each that rhythmically blacks-out the shot, building up to the character’s gruesome demise. The exact meaning of this design is unclear, for me, anyways. It may simply be an effect for its own sake, but it nonetheless evokes a lyrical undercurrent.

    The whole presentation is seductively ominous in this respect and even slightly askew in its temporality, as the present day Texarkana seems vaguely locked in a state of suspended animation—a ghost town halfway faded into a 1970s era, replete with muscle cars and plaid shirts, analog TV sets and tacky swank motels. There is even a reminiscence of ‘70s teen love in the central theme song of sorts -- 'Goodnight Sweet Dream' by the duo 7Horse -- that introduces Jami and her boyfriend’s cruising romance only to later echo in a dream sequence that reunites the two, albeit spectrally; the movie’s singular most haunting moment. Hell, there’s even something lovingly retro to this being a comeback distributional release for Orion Pictures ...that unrevised opening logo taking us back to genre heydays.

    I think actress Addison Timlin does a fine job in the lead and is likewise surrounded by strong character actor performances (Gary Cole, Edward Hermann, Denis O’Hare, the aforementioned Cartwright) but the directing-end of the drama remains a tad mechanical. And while it’s nice to see veteran Ed Lauter as Sheriff Underwood and the role of Texas Ranger Morales somewhat usurped by a slick Anthony Anderson, both characters prove inconsequential to the narrative and are forgotten entirely by the third-act, either a product of hasty script changes or the typical studio interference in editing, or both. And, yes, the end climax suffers. I like the idea of the partnered Phantoms as generational custodians of Texarkana’s mythology, but the twist reveal was regressive and generic in its execution.

    Still, there’s a force of filmmaking nature about this movie. I was engaged in its mystery-solving, entertained for the most part by its various set-pieces and absorbed by the cinematic expression of moods and themes. I’m glad you caught and reviewed it because what I thought would be a more celebrated event for horror junky cinephiles seems to have come and gone without much fanfare.


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