Being of… well, a certain age, I have vivid memories from the 1976 premiere of Charles B. Pierce’s gritty, low-budget thriller The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Not of the film itself – I was too young to see R-rated movies at the time – but the radio and television ads, which were scary enough to brand themselves instantly on my brain, to the point where I could recognize them quickly enough to flip the channel before the horrors revealed themselves again. When I finally had a chance to see the film during one of its many Cinemax airings in the early ’80s, my fear of horror movies had long since evolved into fascination, then undying passion… but the image of the “Phantom Killer” smashing through a victim’s screen door still creeped me out enough to make me close my bedroom window even on the hottest summer nights. That hulking, heavy-breathing goon, clad in workman’s overalls, his face shrouded in a burlap sack (a wardrobe choice which no doubt influenced Jason Voorhees’ look in Friday the 13th Part 2), haunted a fair share of nightmares… and, as the original ad campaign proclaimed, the nameless, faceless monster was still at large!
When I revisited the film recently, I found that much of the raw terror remained intact (despite some clunky bits of exposition and silly comic relief), and realized that, through the lens of nostalgia, I loved it even more. So I was intrigued – a and a bit concerned – when I’d heard Blumhouse’s new remake/reboot/re-whatever of Sundown was adopting the whole “meta” approach that so many ironically-inclined filmmakers have been embracing lately. I wasn’t sure what to think of that prospect, but I knew I had to find out. What I discovered, at a screening of the film at this year’s Beyond Fest, was indeed intense and disturbing… but not quite as compelling as I’d hoped.
First off, I have to say director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and producer Ryan Murphy (who impressed genre TV audiences and Emmy judges alike with their work on American Horror Story) and screenwriter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa not only did their homework on Pierce’s film and the unsolved 1946 crimes which inspired it, but also incorporated Sundown‘s lasting imprint on popular culture – particularly that of Texarkana, Texas, where the first film was set (though not all the actual murders took place there). It seems that town no longer dreads Sundown, but embraces it as their own, until recently hosting a popular screening of the film each Halloween… and that event becomes the lynchpin for this version, which is neither entirely a remake nor a sequel, but a self-referential tale involving a new rash of murders by someone with the same MO as the Phantom.
I’m not down on meta-style reboots, or even horror remakes in general, provided the filmmakers find a clever and original spin on the concept, and I will say Gomez-Rejon & company have created an intriguing and often very scary twist in the tale… but while it works pretty well up to a point, their take on Sundown falls a bit too quickly into the usual horror/slasher tropes to truly refresh the Phantom story. I’m not knocking the slasher formula itself – it’s one of my favorite horror subgenres – but Pierce already used that framework to excellent effect before slashers even had a name, with the added spice of it being a period piece and based on a real-life case. That’s a damn hard act to follow, and more often than not, this version fails to stake its own claim on Phantom turf; it doesn’t help that scenes from the original are often juxtaposed with their modern equivalents, though it does lend itself to the odd idea that the movie has somehow come unstuck in time.
The film begins with a stylish retro flourish at the annual Sundown drive-in screening in Texarkana, leading to a brutal murder by an apparent copycat Phantom. From here the film actually takes a similar approach to Human Centipede 2, establishing a modern-day killer obsessed with recreating the events in the original film, and striving to improve on them. To this end, all the memorable kill scenes from the original are re-staged, but where the first film was fairly graphic for its time, the violence here is ramped up to the extreme, taking advantage of the MPAA’s surprisingly loose restrictions on explicit gore. The best example is the infamous “trombone murder,” which in 1976 was pretty disturbing for its weirdness alone; in the updated version, however, it’s unsettling on a whole new level that I won’t spoil here.
Another plus is the excellent cast – from young lead Addison Timlin as a girl whose innocence has just been violently ripped from her (or has it?), to some seasoned genre vets (including the always excellent Veronica Cartwright) – and they handle the material nicely, though the script saddles our heroine with a bit too much amateur sleuthing and hand-wringing emotional torment; once again, these are slasher tropes that can be fun in their familiarity, but not so much when over-cooked. Gomez-Rejon’s skill with crafting a skewed, unnatural world was proven many times on AHS, and he’s on top of his visual game here, keeping his camera in constant motion and disorienting the audience with jarring angles, floating POV shots and distorted lenses (one extreme high-angle shot of an outdoor chase is beautifully creepy). It’s unfortunate that the script can’t reach the same bar – particularly when it comes to the tired twist ending, which seems to exist simply because the filmmakers assumed audiences would expect it.
While The Town That Dreaded Sundown definitely has its share of disappointments, I enjoyed the grim mood and surreal, nightmarish atmosphere, and the characters were compelling enough to keep me invested in their plight. As a long-time fan of the original, I wasn’t put off by what the filmmakers tried to do with this one… I just don’t think they entirely succeeded.