Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Starring: Addison Timlin, Veronica Cartwright, Gary Cole, Joshua Leonard, Anthony Anderson, Travis Tope
In 1946, the small town of Texarkana was besieged by a masked killer who went on a killing spree over a three month period. The killer was never caught and the incident became infamous. A film was made, dramatizing the events in 1976, called The Town that Dreaded Sundown, which brought its own kind of infamy to the town. Now, in the present day, on an evening where a special screening of the film is taking place at a Drive-in, someone is replicating the murders, killing people in the same locations and in the same manner. Jami her boyfriend Corey are the killer's first victims, although Jami manages to survive the attack. As more people are murdered, Jami begins her own investigation, not only in the present but also into the original killings...
The 1976 film, based on the real-life killings of 1946, has had something of a resurgence of late, heralded as a lost classic of horror cinema and a prototype slasher film, albeit based on a real tragic incident. The trailer for the original film appears at the beginning of the disc, and is a welcome addition as it adds a lot of context to what we're watching in the present.
This could easily have been a forgettable remake, just updating things to modern times, however director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon brings a lot of technical and visual flair to the story. Take, for example, the opening scene at the Drive in. It took me a moment to realise, and I had to rewind the sequence and watch it again, but it is in fact one long, unedited shot. Starting way above the scene, descending to Jami and Corey talking with each other, then moving slowly between cars and around people until Jami and Corey pass by again, in their car. It's a virtuoso set piece and a great way to start the film.
The script, credited to Earl E. Smith (who wrote the original 1976 screenplay) and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (known mostly for his tv work on series such as Glee, Big Love and Looking), takes a perspective to the material which is very difficult to pull off successfully. The film is set in "the real world", one where people have seen the original film and understand its significance. This is something that Grave Encounters 2 and Blair Witch: Book of Shadows also attempted, and failed hard at. However this film succeeds in pulling it off. There are even a couple of flash-backs to the making of the original film, showing the camera crew and production team using the exact same locations as the real killer, and the audience gets to juxtapose those scenes with their knowledge that the new killer also stood in that exact same spot.
Unfortunately, The Town That Dreaded Sundown doesn't work so well as a procedural, despite strong presence from the likes of Gary Cole and Joshua Leonard. Jami investigates the original murder spree to interminable results and the current police seem to be as clueless as their 1946 counterparts were. The twist ending is also a bit weak, with the reveal of the killer's identity and reasons for killing being anticlimactic.
The film's strengths are in its murder set-pieces and the striking visuals that accompany them. One in particular has a man shot through the eye while sitting on the couch receivingoral sex, his partner then chased down through a cornfield. As she tries to evade the Phantom through the cornrows, the camera is set up in the sky, looking down on the scene, showing us both of their locations as they cut a path through the greenery.
The film has also garnered a lot of attention over the fact that two of the killer's victims were gay - or at least, two teenage boys who were about to sexually experiment with each other. The scene is well handled, with the two unsure of what to do and how to proceed. They're just coming up with suggestions when they are rudely interrupted (this scene includes the "trombone" killing). This is a great little scene and feels like a milestone moment to me and its refreshing to see the gay community represented in a genre film.
What could have been a forgettable remake, turns out to be a visual tour-de-force. It has flaws, but the technical skill is a delight to witness and the meta elements of the script work really well. Highly recommended.
8 out of 10 (MikeOutWest)