October Horrorshow: The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014)

With all the remakes and reboots of horror franchises over the last decade or so, I was expecting 2014’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown to be just another retread starring young pretty people with vapid looks in their eyes reading just as vapid lines. Somewhere out there wayward production companies are on a constant search for properties ripe for further exploitation, and I thought this was one of them. Before I saw this movie, I had only recently heard of the original Town. That’s significant, because I’ve seen a lot of horror movies. There aren’t that many obscure titles that I haven’t heard of. At least, I think there aren’t. I can’t be too sure about my own ignorance, in truth. Anyway, I thought the filmmakers were scraping the bottom of the barrel to find a title whose rights hadn’t already been locked down. Cynical me went into this film, then, with low expectations. But, rather than having to suffer through another Friday the 13th or Fog remake, this newest version of Town is a well-thought-out horror flick.

Taking place in the twin towns of Texarkana, which sit along the Texas/Arkansas border, the film retells the story from the original, but throws in the wrinkle that the original film exists in this new story. In fact, the opening scene show’s the film’s protagonist, Jami (Addison Timlin), out on a date to the local drive-in, which is screening the original for Halloween. There’s even a scene where a character is watching the original movie, and the scene from the original has the same dialogue as a scene from the remake that appeared earlier. How very meta.

I haven’t seen the original film, but what I can gather from the remake is that it was a fictionalization of real murders that happened in Texarkana in the 1940s. Since then, the original has become a cult film, and a bit of a bane to the citizens of the area. The town has a complicated relationship with the original film and the people who made it. It’s an old wound, reopened every time the film is shown.

However, not content to let the real murderer, or the film about him, be all that riles the townsfolk, a new killer has taken on the mantle of the ‘Phantom,’ cutting a bloody swath through the towns. Jami’s date at the drive-in is the first victim, and the remainder of the film follows Jami as she tries to figure out who is behind the killings. The film then becomes a mystery as much as a slasher flick. Who is the killer? Why are they imitating the original killer, someone who has been long dead? If the original movie had never been made, would this new killer have appeared at all? All questions interesting enough to keep a viewer engaged, and that’s without even considering the gory stuff.

There are aspects of the story that do not work. The film follows Jami and a new love interest, Nick (Travis Tope), as they investigate the Phantom, to such an extent that the plot arcs involving other characters are rendered valueless, necessary only to pad the running time. The peripheral story that stands out the most follows Texas Ranger ‘Lone Wolf’ Morales (Anthony Anderson), who has been dispatched to the Texas side of town to take over the investigation there. His character and scenes are setup as being integral to the plot’s resolution, but by the final act he, like everyone else not sharing screen time with Jami, is discarded. It’s a little jarring to see so much of the film invested in this character only to see him disappear. Perhaps the film was in danger of becoming victim to plot creep, and the director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, decided it was time to wrap things up, unresolved story arcs be damned. Perhaps there is a lot of footage left on the cutting room floor, the filmmakers deciding that an 86-minute runtime was enough. Either way, I thought Lone Wolf was an excellent character, and could have been used better.

Other than these curious decisions regarding the supporting characters, and an ending ripped straight from the lazy remake handbook, the film works quite well. The cast is better than most horror flicks get, it was shot well, the pacing is good, and the scares are good. The appearances of the killer are important to this film. Avoiding spectacle was key to maintaining the tone of the rest of the story. Both cartoonish gore or torture porn would have undermined the work of the rest of the movie. This leaves the killer a creature of the shadows, whose appearances are quick and brutal. He gets the job done, as does the film as a whole.