“Wow, look at this place. It’s like The Town that Dreaded Sundown.”
“Yeah I saw that movie. It’s about a killer in Texas, huh?”
–Sidney Prescott and Deputy Dewey, Scream
There’s certainly something to be said about expectations. I think everybody assumed The Town that Dreaded Sundown was a remake, and bound to be a decidedly average one at that, but it is actually a meta-sequel of sorts yet also works as a reworking of the Charles B. Pierce original from 1976. It in fact didn’t just overtake my expectations, but exceeded any possible best case scenarios I may have hazarded to predict.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s 38-years-later return to the town of Texarkana – half on the side of Arkansas and half on the side of Texas that’d sound like a neat gimmick of a location if it weren’t actually a real place – and plays devilish games with the idea of remakes and sequels, making his film a surprisingly twisty revisit to both the original “Phantom” serial killer story and the 1976. Taking a similarly murderous winking tact to the original that Wes Craven’s New Nightmare had to its own franchise starter, it posits that the original Pierce film was in fact a real movie production that blew in to the town and made a film that capitalized on their very real grief. All of these years later, local teens consider the film a rural rite of passage rather than a horrific account of their hometown’s past. Little more than a moving picture postcard of their grandparents’ day for their amusement as they take dates with the hope of getting laid once the credits have rolled. For another example, the 1976 film is to the 2014 film as Stab was to the universe of Wes Craven’s Scream series, and I certainly didn’t expect that when I sat down in my nearly vacant Saturday afternoon cinema.
Much like 1994’s New Nightmare and 2011’s Scream 4, Gomez-Rejon’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown tries to examine the link between on screen violence and real-life violence when filtered through the prism of retrospection and nostalgia. Through a plethora of red herrings, it suggests that somebody from the past isn’t happy with either the film’s representation of the Phantom case (a real unsolved case from the ‘40s) or how much people in the town have turned the film into a reverential joke.
“These were real people”, says a preacher played by Edward Herrmann as he tries to persuade viewers from reveling in the horrors at a local drive-in. It’s a true statement of many films that try to eke viewer satisfaction from real life events that, for those involved, are never unforgettably traumatic. It’s also easy to assume that this is the director’s way of rebuking the original film’s comical take on the material, which had several tense, horrific scenes of brutal mayhem interspersed throughout comic ones such as when a cop dresses in drag as a lure for the killer.
While the film can’t replicate the muddy, visceral VHS-amplified terror of the original, the slickness of Michael Goi’s cinematography at least makes for its own sense of style, utilising colour and framing in ways that suggest more attention being paid than other recent examples of the genre. An early scene finds the camera using a slinking tracking shot to make its way over a drive-in movie screen and through a crowd of cars. Another uses aerial shots to distinguish who is where during a corn-field chase sequence that could have otherwise proven confusing.
Throughout the film, Gomez-Rejon and editor Joe Leonard splice in frames, shots, and even entire scenes of the original to not only make that connectedness even stronger, but to also remind viewers (or educate those who have not seen the original) of how linked the two films are. The film is a sequel, but the action is that of a remake. The soundtrack even occasionally splinters off into the sound of reels of celluloid flickering through a projector, a neat, minor trick that will make some audiences recall the time before cell phones and found footage while simultaneously hinting at potential motivations.
Of course, silly genre tropes frustrate. Why when your small town is being targeted by a killer who strikes at nighttime – and in a film titled The Town that Dreaded Sundown no less – do people continue to go out at night? Walking, driving, going to fancy banquets; it makes no sense and if the film has one big failure it’s that the sense of dread felt by the townspeople is only minimal. Likewise, the big climax reveal feels more like when a film such as Urban Legend tried to replicate Scream rather than it being its own unique beast. Furthermore, for as smart as Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s screenplay is, it does sometimes go a bit too far with its fanciful winking. For instance, Denis O’Hare plays Charles B. Pierce, Jr., otherwise known as the son of the 1976 original’s director. I can see the grin on their faces from here.
This sort of film, as evidenced by its release, isn’t the sort of horror fare that audiences appear to want these days, which is a shame. It’s one of the best examples of the genre I’ve seen in quite some time. Audiences in the future might be well-advised to pair the two films together as seeing one will ultimately make them appreciate the other (or not, I guess, but at least makes sense). The Town that Dreaded Sundown is perhaps the first of its kind: it is both a sequel and a remake, and in both cases it improves upon its original.