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Town That Dreaded Sundown, The (2014)

D: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon / 86m

Cast: Addison Timlin, Veronica Cartwright, Gary Cole, Edward Herrmann, Travis Tope, Joshua Leonard, Anthony Anderson, Ed Lauter, Denis O’Hare, Spencer Treat Clark

Texarkana, October 2013. At an outdoor screening of The Town That Dreaded Sundown, the movie made in 1976 about the murders that took place in the town during the spring of 1946, Corey (Clark) realises that his girlfriend Jami (Timlin) isn’t enjoying the movie. They leave, and find somewhere else to park up. They soon find they’re not alone: a man with a burlap sack over his head and eyeholes cut out is standing in front of their car with a gun in his hand. He forces them out of the car. The man makes Corey lie face down on the ground before killing him with a knife. Jami escapes but not before the man tells her that he’s doing this for “Mary, and so that the town won’t forget her”.

In the days that follow, Jami tries to discover what the killer meant about “Mary”, and goes to the town’s newspaper archives to learn more about the murders in 1946. She meets Nick (Tope) who helps her find the material she’s looking for. She finds a suspect at the time whose son might be responsible for the new crimes and takes her findings to the police. Led by Texas Ranger, Captain J.D. Morales (Anderson), the investigating team – which also includes Chief Deputy Tillman (Cole), Sheriff Underwood (Lauter), and Deputy Foster (Leonard) – allow Jami to explain her theory but reveal that they’ve already explored that avenue and it leads to a dead end.

A double murder occurs and it becomes clear that the killer is replicating the original murders. Jami continues her own investigation and discovers that there was a death in 1946 that was considered to be a suicide but which may have been the Phantom Killer’s final victim. When she also discovers that the man’s wife was called Mary, she begins to piece together enough evidence to suggest that the man’s grandson is very likely the killer. Meanwhile, the murders continue, and Jami finds herself targeted once again, as she and Nick edge ever nearer to revealing the killer’s identity.

Town That Dreaded Sundown, The (2014) - scene

Less a remake of the original movie than a belated sequel – though it has elements of the former – The Town That Dreaded Sundown is an initially interesting, apparently well constructed movie that riffs on the events of 1946 while adding a modern day twist to proceedings that appears cleverer than it actually is.

The movie begins with a voiceover reminiscent of the 1976 movie, and offers a recap of the Phantom Killer’s exploits. It then states that the following events happened in Texarkana in 2013. With such an unnecessary claim made right from the start, the movie’s attempts at creating a companion piece to Charles B. Pierce’s cult classic are seriously hindered, as the credibility needed to make the movie work on the same level is quickly abandoned. It’s a shame, as the meta-movie that was intended shines through from time to time, dispelling the fug of contemporary horror movie clichés that the movie trots out with wearying persistence.

As a result the killings are less intense, eschewing the febrile pitch of the original for a more blood-soaked approach; it’s as if the makers didn’t trust their audience to remain interested unless they threw in a gory moment or two every ten minutes. This leads to unnecessarily silly moments such as when a woman jumps out of a motel room window and breaks her leg (you get a close-up shot of the bone sticking out) – and then makes it to a car and tries to get it started. To make matters worse, when the killer catches up with her and stabs her to death in the car, the windows are treated to the kind of blood spray that looks like it was achieved by ejecting it from a cannon.

Where the movie does score points for originality is when Jami and Nick focus on the original movie and the idea that, in putting his movie together, Charles B. Pierce may have come across evidence that he wasn’t able to either incorporate into his movie, or prove was relevant to the murders. With Pierce having passed away in 2010, they turn their attention to his son – also Charles – who still lives in Texarkana. Alas, this twist in the story is ruined by having Pierce Jr behave like an obsessive backwoods loon, rather than someone who’s just interested in what is a very beguiling mystery (he’s played by Denis O’Hare, but the real Pierce can be seen in the background of the bar where Tillman meets up with a local prostitute).

With the script by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa proving so uneven despite a plethora of good intentions, and with Gomez-Rejon unable to raise the material above the level of a slasher movie, this dispenses with character development early on – Anderson’s laid-back Morales remains that way whatever happens – and reveals the killer’s identity in such a WTF? moment (as well as being lifted from another horror franchise) that the viewer will probably be picking their jaw up off the floor. The cast add little to the proceedings, with Timlin unable to dial down Jami’s insipid nature, or provide any energy in a role that the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis would have made their own in the first couple of scenes. Cole is wasted, as is Leonard and Cartwright (as Jami’s grandmother), while Lauter gets the odd line here and there, and Herrmann has a puzzling role as the local clergyman who’s dispensed with – by the plot, at least – halfway through.

As noted above, there are plenty of good intentions here but almost none of them are organised into a coherent, plausible whole. The accent on gore is a misstep, the whole revenge plot is never given the depth or sense of injustice it needs, and the whole scene at the gas station throws what little credibility the movie has managed to retain to the four winds and beyond. As a belated sequel it barely works, but as an example of a potentially clever remake it fails completely.

Rating: 4/10 – a clever premise undermined by sloppy plotting, weak characters and a lack of directorial control, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is one of the less appealing horror movies of 2014; if watched on a double bill with the original, this should definitely be viewed first.