Addison Timlin - Jami
Veronica Cartwright - Lillian
Anthony Anderson - Lone Wolf Morales
Travis Tope - Nick
Joshua Leonard - Deputy Foster
Gary Cole - Chief Deputy Tillman
Edward Herrmann - Reverend Cartwright
Denis O'Hare - Charles B. Pierce, Jr.
Spencer Treat Clark - Corey
Genre - Horror/Slasher/Thriller/Mystery
Running Time - 90 Minutes
Every Halloween, Texarkana, Texas screens the 1976 cult classic THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN. One night in 2013, Jami (Addison Timlin) and her boyfriend Corey (Spencer Treat Clark) are attacked by a man dressed as the infamous "Phantom Killer", murdering Corey and wanting Jami to send a message to the rest of the town about his presence. Traumatized and wanting answers, Jami decides to investigate the incident in order to figure out who the new "Phantom Killer" is. As she learns about the real events from 1946 that THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN was based on, the Phantom Killer murders more people, repeating the events that the original killer had committed.
1976's docu-drama/horror film, THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, is an interesting one. It's not the greatest horror film out there, or the most memorable. But it was based on real events in Texarkana during the mid-1940s, and inspired countless other horror films that were released afterwards - including the look for Jason Voorhees in his first grown-up appearance in 1981's FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2. The 1976 film had its issues [a dumb comedic bumbling police squad sub-plot comes to mind], but its storytelling is interesting and the Phantom Killer himself is pretty creepy [especially since he was never caught].
I was very curious about a new version of THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, since I felt the original film could have used an update of sorts. Ryan Murphy, producer of Glee and the American Horror Story series, was brought on board to bring this movie to life. As a fan of American Horror Story, I was very interested in how this new version would play out. The original film wasn't a thrilling film, using simplicity and subtlety to bring suspense and menace to the big screen. Would that even work in 2014? Surprisingly, 2014's THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN works better than it ought to, especially when you realize it's more of a homage to the original rather than a remake.
Good Things: I really enjoyed how "meta" THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN plays with its narrative. I'll get to my thoughts on the actual story later, but I did enjoy how this film is very well aware of the 1974 film's existence, as well as the true life events that inspired both films. The murders in this film are copied from the murders from the original film on purpose - just so a new generation could remember the original terror Texarkana suffered during the 1940s, instead of celebrating it by releasing the 1974 film annually for box office receipts. I also liked how our main character, Jess, researches the murders through old newspaper archives, and even talks to the son of the director who gave us the original film [played by actor Denis O'Hare]. I was expecting a full-on remake that updated what the original film presented. And while we do get that somewhat, THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is more of a pseudo-sequel that happens to be very aware of itself and its status in the horror community. Many filmmakers use the "meta" technique to sound clever or smart, failing most of the time [thanks SCREAM!]. But I think THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN gets it mostly right, as I was never sure where the film was going while certain scenes were re-created in front of me.
I thought the visual presentation was extremely polished. Producer Ryan Murphy is no stranger to giving us polished horror with American Horror Story, having director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon steer away from the documentary feel of the original film, giving us a nice looking slasher flick that's definitely 2014. The film is well paced, well shot with great angles and slick editing, and even delivers nice tension and suspense at times. The kills are never really gory, but there is blood. And I liked that certain sequences from the first film are re-created in a good way, paying homage to these classic moments. The trombone-knife scene is back, which I liked in context within the scene it happens in [hate crime, or just wrong place wrong time?]. There's also the stalk-and-slash through a field that was taken from the first film, in which a female victim tries to hide from the Phantom Killer after her lover is shot through the window of his home. I also thought the red herrings and the twist ending were interesting, even if the twist didn't really reach its potential [more on that later]. THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is just a nice looking picture [thanks to cinematographer Michael Goi] that flows really well. Then again, we didn't have to watch bumbling cops cross dress for whatever reason, ruining the pace of the film. So definite upgrade there.
I also thought the acting was solid here. Addison Timlin is very solid as Jami, our lead character. She was totally convincing in the role, as I bought her journey and her trauma throughout the film's runtime. I also thought her voiceover stuff was done nicely as well. The rest of the cast is great as well - especially Anthony Anderson, Gary Cole [playing a great douchebag as always], Edward Herrmann as a reverend, and Veronica Cartwright as Jami's grandmother. I thought the acting here was a lot better than the acting in the 1974 film.
Bad Things: I think my only gripe with 2014's THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN was the narrative. Now, it's not a terrible story or a badly written script. It's fine for a slasher film that's self-aware of the true story and film that story was based on. But there seemed to be things that wanted to be brought up that weren't expanded on at all.
The main issue was Jami's backstory. While we get bits of it during the film, the film seemed to imply that her past related to the recent murders. Why would the killer spare her life so she could spread the message that he's returned if she wasn't important to him in the first place? I figured there would be a deeper connection between the two. Maybe they were related. Maybe he has history with her family. Or maybe the guy was just infatuated with her somewhat. Whatever the case, it was never really clear what the deal was. I like backstories when done right, and especially if they relate to the plot and its conclusion. But Jami's past never really does, which makes it a lost opportunity. At least her flashbacks were interesting on their own. I just wish they mattered more in the bigger spectrum of things.
I also didn't really like the film's third act. The story leads to a twist ending that's been done before, but one I didn't see coming in THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN. I was all for it until I realized it was fleshed out much at all and didn't really make a ton of sense once it was all said and done. I'm sure the ending was just meant to shock viewers and try to fill in the pieces on how it's considered possible. But I wish it resonated longer and meant more by the end. It started out interesting and just fell apart second by second, lasting all but three minutes. It's a shame because I think if the final act was better, the film would have been a lot stronger than it actually was.
And of course, the characterization for everyone but Jami could have been better. I know a slasher film isn't known for deep characters and relationships, but THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN seemed to want to be a more dramatic level of slasher. While the characters are interesting archetypes, they all seem to be red herrings and suspects within the mystery of the Phantom Killer. Instead of caring about them, we're judging them to see if they're really the culprit. This doesn't really hurt the film much at all, but a little more variety and depth with the characters would have been nice.
THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE WRITING THESE THINGS I'VE LEARNED
- Watching the original THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is considered God-less. I guess if that's the case, watching any of the TWILIGHT films is like burning in purgatory for the rest of time.
- Pointing a gun at his head, the Phantom Killer tells Corey to take off his pants. Man, this MAGIC MIKE XL audition is no joke!
- "This is for Mary. Make them remember." Damn right. 227 was a great show! Show Marla Gibbs and Jackee some love!
- The Phantom Killer brought back the trombone-knife kill, stabbing a gay kid from behind. I guess he wanted to slide his trombone into his ass, I mean brass section.
- A lady was frightened by a scarecrow. If she only had a brain...
THE FINAL HOWL
2014's THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN was a pleasant surprise. Rather than a remake, it plays out more as a sequel that's well aware of the true events from the mid-1940s, as well as the 1974 film based on those true events. The acting was solid, the polished direction was stylish and looked great, and the whole "meta" angle was an interesting take on the story - working pretty damn well in the process. I do wish the mystery was handled better, as well as that twist in the final act that didn't really have enough time to resonate. It didn't click for me at all. But overall, THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is a nice homage to the 1974 film for a modern audience. Definitely worth a look if you enjoyed the original film, or just slasher-mysteries in general.