Since its release, Charles B. Pierce’s 1976 horror film The Town That Dreaded Sundown has been a cult favorite among horror fans. Everything from Ralph McQuarrie’s stunning poster design, to the evocative depictions of the Phantom Killer, to the film’s quirky blend of horror and slapstick comedy has culminated in a work that remains timely and entertaining. Yet, in all its glory it’s a flawed film. Pierce shows a remarkable penchants for creating an atmosphere of legitimate terror — the intro of the Phantom Killer remains one of the most effective bits in slasher cinema history — but, while appreciated, its comedy often works to undermine the overall tone. Further, the narration does give the film a sense of realism but also gives the film a sort of choppy feel. In short, it’s a flawed masterpiece.
Arguing about the need for remakes is futile. We don’t need anything, but if we are to accept any remakes, we should be open to calmly considering all films, rather than blindly reject them. It would seem that films like The Town that Dreaded Sundown offer the ripest grounds. There are a ton of great ideas — some capitalized on, some not — in Pierce’s film, and while its beautiful in its own right, one can imagine there being a great deal of growth if placed in the right hands. Having worked prior in television (his work on American Horror Story probably got him this gig), Alfonso Gomez-Rejon proved to be just that person, making his feature debut with The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014).
Much like American Horror Story, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a hyper-stylized film. This, however, has both its pros and cons. In the past decade, much of mainstream horror has become stylistically stale and formulaic. Horror has, historically, been a place for great formal experimentations. Yet, in a cycle of found footage films, engaging style has been substituted for bland, handheld cinematography. This is what is most refreshing about The Town. Gomez-Rejon places an immense trust in the art of visual story telling and, along with DP Michael Goi, crafts one of the most visually interesting mainstream horror films of late. Problems do arise. Gomez-Rejon seems unable to distinguish between style-informed-by-substance and unhinged stylistic excess; the film falling into the latter too much for comfort. With a little bit of guidance or perhaps more experience, Gomez-Rejon could really be quite a force for horror cinema but, as it stands now, he is too all over the place to create something truly cohesive and impressive.As far as the narrative in concerned, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s script is stimulating, and even sometimes quite brilliant. Taking Pierce’s original film along with the real life events that inspired it, The Town That Dread Sundown is a hyper-meta twist on the power of cinematic reality. Technically, its not really a remake, more of a sequel that replicates events of the original film (a requel if you want to get cutesy). The film opens much in the same manner as the original, only instead of describing just the real life events, the narrator includes a discussion of how Pierece’s film added to the to the town of Texarkana’s history. Many of the killings, following suit, also copy those from the original, only with a new spin.
The problem is that as you start pealing back the layers of the film it becomes clear that it is too assured of itself and a bit too cheeky; it’s less Scream than the myriad of meta-horror films in Scream‘s wake. Much of the self-awareness becomes grating. While clever at times, the writing turns to be the film’s Achilles’ heel. The film knows its premise is smart and therefor comes off as a bit too sure of itself, constantly beating the same drum. Further, the conclusion is ineffective and comes off as nothing more than a replicant of denouements we’ve seen over and over again in the genre. Overall, the casting is on point, leading to a well acted film. With the exception of an unmotivated shot or two, there is nothing really out of place visually. It’s a well crafted machine, just one that substitutes assured meta-narration for substance and subtext. Overall, The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014) will fail to resonate with audiences like the original has, but it does serve as a beautiful debut for Gomez-Rejon. With any hope, both Gomez-Rejon and Goi will find themselves working with more powerful material in the future.The Town that Dreaded Sundown is now available on Blu-Ray exclusively at Best Buy until September 8, 2015.