The original The Town That Dreaded Sundown premiered in 1976. It served as one of the early influences on a number of different horror genres. The films finger prints can be seen on may of the slasher films from the early 1980's, from Friday the 13th to films like The Burning. All owe some sort of debt, no matter how small, to the original film. Recently, folks have begun to realize the films influence on a second type of horror sub-genre: the faux documentary. Presented as a legitimate documentary back in 1976, The Town That Dreaded Sundown retold the tale of a series of actual murders that took place on the Texas/Arkansas Borders thirty years before, in 1946. This faux documentary framing device has become more and more popular as filmmakers continue to work int he found footage milieu. Films like The Sacrament or The Taking of Deborah Logan both exploit this convention to add both elements of urgency and surprise to their respective films.
With the hardcore horror fan beginning to turn their collective backs on the whole "found footage"trend (something that hasn't really happened with mainstream audiences - yet). What tact would one of the Grandfathers of the genre attempt when approaching a remake? Would it follow the same premise? Would it be something different, a straight narrative perhaps? Well in the 2014 version of The Town That Dreaded Sundown filmmakers Alfonzo Gomez-Rejon ('American Horror Story') and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (Carrie) decide to split the baby as the biblical among us may say. The results are better than you think, but fall a bit short of the originals impact.
Texarcana, Arkansas and Texarcana, Texas are the same town - one half in Arkansas and one half in Texas. Both towns however hold a deadly past. During a three month period in the summer of 1946 a serial killer stalked and killed citizens of both towns. In 1976 a documentary film crew arrived to recount the events of that summer and attempt to flush some answers out of a tight lipped community. While the notoriety of the original film, The Town That Dreaded Sundown faded, the brutality and scars from the original murders did as well. Each year the towns unite in a celebration of their shared folklore and exhibit the 1976 film. Unfortunately for the citizens of Texarcana, the scars that have faded for some are still festering for others that still live in town. When the brutal murders begin happening again, it's up to Jami, one of Bagheads first attempted victims to unravel the mystery behind the killings before even more people die.
The film is presented as a quasi-documentary. It's not full on faux documentary, like say The Sacrament is. Most of the happenings are straight horror film narrative, with some cool juxtaposition to the original film thrown in as reference points. While it certainly keeps things from falling into a "generic horror 101" category, in the films slower moments it really just makes you want to watch the superior original film. That being said it's one of the most beautifully shot horror films in a long time. Director Gomez-Rejon cut his teeth working for Ryan Murphys various television projects, most importantly, 'American Horror Story' and he takes a lot of the feel of Season 3's 'Coven and adapts it here. His shots are smooth and beautiful - it's certainly a welcome departure from the recent glut of "shaky cam" films that have you reaching for the Dramamine ten minutes in.
If Gomez-Rejon's camera work isn't enough to keep you engaged, then the who's who cast will certainly keep your eyes glued to the screen. Not only are there hundreds of homages to the cast of the original film, you also get Gary Cole (Office Space), Edward Hermann (RIP. The Lost Boys), Veronica Cartwright (Alien), Ed Lauter (RIP. Cujo), Anthony Andersen, and Joshua Leonard (The Blair Witch Project). While each the roles each has vary in screen time, it never felt like someone was just being trotted out for stunt casting purposes, like has become the wont in lower budget horror films these days. Each is vita; to the film, their roles actually mean something.
While the new Town That Dreaded Sundown has a lot going for it, it's biggest issue has to do with its ridiculous ending. I don't know if at some point there was a different ending and the studio got involved, but the note the film ends on is one of the sourest I can remember. It's like someone stuck a page from one of Kevin Williamsons 1996 diaries into the script. It's a total Scooby Doo ending, complete with nonsensical exposition and head scratching continuity.
The remake/reboot (because it's not really a remake per say) of The Town That Dreaded Sundown is one of the most meta films of all time. It exists in a world where the first film happened and has had an deep impact on the town. It's an interesting way to tell a story. Unfortunately, what works as a clever concept to set the film apart from many of the other remakes and found footage films gets hijacked by the late 90's twist machine and falls completely off the rails. While horror fans were hoping that The Town That Dreaded Sundown would breathe some much needed air into the slasher sub-genre, the film fails to do so. Leaving viewers with a flame that dwindles to a spark during the end of the third act.
There is enough good in The Town That Dreaded Sundown to give it a recommendation. There are some rather good performances and a couple really good jump scares. Those looking for blood and guts should be satiated enough as well. It's just a shame that the ending ruined most of the films goodwill. The film is currently available on Netflix instant. Check it out.
*** and 3/4 stars out of *****
That's it for me. As always, thanks for reading and "enjoy every sandwich"