PLOT: During a Halloween screening of the cult classic THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, a mysterious hooded figure violently attacks a young couple. After leaving the young woman alive, she takes it upon herself to discover the identity of her attacker. All the while he stalks new victims as the bloody Texarkana history seemingly begins to repeat itself.
The 1976 docudrama horror film THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is an effective look at a serial killer stalking the innocent people of Texarkana, Texas in the mid-1940s. Known as the Texarkana “Moonlight Murders,” this chillingly low-budget account of a true life ‘Phantom Killer’ offered some genuine scares. The horror and suspense works in the simplistic tale of a manhunt for a killer. Can any of that old-school charm be found in the 2014 version? Well once that old Orion Pictures logo came up for the closing night at its Beyond Fest screening in Hollywood over the weekend, the audience was sure ready to head back to Texas.
With a near forty-year wait for a new film, it would have been a tough job to recreate that spooky cult classic. For better or worse the filmmakers decided on a very different approach. Working as a sequel more than a remake, the story revolves around the town of Texarkana and how the real life events became a distant memory, with only an annual screening of the film as a reminder. One dark night, while at that special Halloween screening of the original film, Jami (Addison Timlin) convinces her date Corey (Spencer Treat Clark) to leave. When they find a quiet area to get intimate, they are attacked by a man dressed similar to the legendary phantom killer. Stabbing and killing Corey and leaving Jami alive, the phantom demands Jami warn the townsfolk that he is back.
This new take introduces us to a whole new group of Texarkana residents who are quite willing to leave the crime-ridden past behind them. Yet being a small town with a “based on a true story” horror flick as a reminder, it is nearly an impossible task. And thanks to the latest violent attack, the townsfolk are about to get a bloody lesson in history. Soon, the innocent Jami starts researching the town past, with the help of her Grandmother (Veronica Cartwright) and one of her ex-classmates Nick (Travis Tope), a shy young man who works at the town archive. Once she does, Texarkana begins to face an awful reminder by a strange man intent on seeking out his own brand of horror – largely inspired by the original killings.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (“American Horror Story” and “Glee”) strays far away from the documentary style of the first film. His TOWN is a slick – and bloody - near experimental feature. With a number of quick cuts and skewed images, there is a sharp visual energy that is entertainingly fresh in horror. While many of the scenes are familiar to genre fans, the filmmaker – along with cinematographer Michael Goi – experiment with odd angles and lenses keeping things moving. Of course the old familiar murders show up here as well, including the trombone killing featured in the original. Many of the choices Gomez-Rejon make are fascinating, yet the trickery wears thin on occasion somewhat lessening the tension.
The story itself is impressive simply in its ability to let both films exist in the same universe, as well as the real life killings. Much like the SCREAM franchise, TOWN examines the effects of the film and the inhabitants still living in Texarkana – with a little less humor of course. Still, the self-awareness works on a number of levels including the fact that a sixty-five-year-old series of murders can still be unnerving. As Cartwright’s wise old grandmother puts it, those were the days when people of this town started locking their doors.
With the mysterious killer haunting THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, it is a shame that the final outcome is mostly quite predictable. There are a dozen red herrings including Tope, Gary Cole and Joshua Leonard as officers of the law, Ed Lauter as a sheriff, and Edward Hermann as a reverend intent on bringing God back to the community. It would be ridiculous to try and keep up with the myriad of suspects. Yet in the last half hour, the outcome is predictable aside from a little shock or two, and regrettably the finale seems rushed. It is also one that you’ve seen done before.
Getting rid of the documentary style of the original and replacing the newscaster type narration voice over with a game Addison Timlin, THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is a definite departure. The creatively shot flick can occasionally feel like overkill, yet it is refreshing to see a director try and liven up a slasher flick such as this. While the original was a more serious and thought provoking experience, this is a stylish and occasionally brutal true crime inspired feature. The impressive array of character actors adds a credibility factor to this horror show, and it all comes off far better than it could have. I enjoyed this new and often times refreshing take on THE TOWN THE DREADED SUNDOWN.