In what has got to be one of the more exciting horror-related announcements in recent memory, “American Horror Story” mastermind Ryan Murphy is reteaming with his “The Normal Heart” producer Jason Blum (who shepherded the “Paranormal Activity” franchise and has alien abduction chiller “Dark Skies” opening next month) for a remake of the cult classic horror film “The Town That Dreaded Sundown.” If that didn’t get your blood pumping already, surely the additional news of who’s behind it will — the picture will be directed by “American Horror Story” all-star Alfonso Gomez-Rejon from an already-completed script by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (who has been responsible for everything from episodes of “Glee” to refashioning “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” into a play people actually want to see).
According to a report in the Hollywood Reporter, Murphy made the announcement at a press event following the premiere of the season finale of “American Horror Story: Asylum,”, an episode that Gomez-Rejon directed. Ryan told the crowd that “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” was a childhood favorite, adding: “I went to (Blum) with this and MGM was gracious enough to let us do it with them. So we’re doing a modern-day version remake, weird meta thing with (it).”
The original “The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” released in 1976 and directed by journeyman filmmaker Charles B. Pierce (whose oddball career had him oscillating between fairly high profile directorial efforts and being the set decorator on things like “The Outlaw Josey Wales”), is based on the events surrounding The Phantom Killer, who murdered five people on the border of Texas and Arkansas in the spring of 1946. (The killer was never apprehended, adding to the film’s eerie, open-ended atmosphere.) What made the original such an unsettling piece of horror filmmaking was its kind of real-world approach – the movie is narrated like a documentary and many non-actors play people from the area, making for an experience that’s equal parts “Halloween” and “Bernie.”
While the original film, produced by American International Pictures bigwig Samuel Z. Arkoff, was a minor drive-in hit, it did have a lasting legacy in the horror genre. Most notably, the mask that iconic serial killer Jason wore in “Friday the 13th Part 2” (what is referred to amongst fans as “Sack-head Jason”) was a direct copy of the Phantom Killer’s mask in “The Town That Dreaded Sundown.” (This mask also made a brief appearance in 2008’s abysmal remake.) The film is also name-checked as a horror classic by Jamie Kennedy’s video store geek character in Wes Craven’s deconstructionist “Scream.” This year the film should also receive a fair amount of attention – in addition to the news of the remake, Shout Factory’s amazing new horror imprint Scream Factory is set to release a deluxe Blu-ray edition of the film (it aired twice on TCM last year in a glorious high definition widescreen), chock full of new extras and upgraded picture and sound.
Aguirre-Sacasa most recently completed the screenplay to Kimberly Peirce’s remake of “Carrie,” which got bumped from its spring slot (where it would have to compete with the much buzzed-about “Evil Dead” remake) to a more Halloween-friendly October location. His career is amazingly varied and accomplished – he’s written scripts for “Big Love” and worked on comic books like the truly incredible, wildly underappreciated “Angel Revelations” miniseries for Marvel Knights (the panels were like stained-glass windows) and also won awards from the Kennedy Center for his off-Broadway plays (including one based on the homosexual exploits of the main character from the “Archie” comics). He can pretty much do it all.
But even more exciting than Aguirre-Sacasa’s involvement is the fact that this will be Gomez-Rejon’s debut. The filmmaker started out as Martin Scorsese’s assistant before working as a second unit director for Nora Ephron, Kevin Macdonald and Ben Affleck (on last year’s Oscar-nominated “Argo”). He also did second unit direction on Murphy’s “Eat Pray Love,” which led to directing gigs on both “Glee” and “American Horror Story.” This year, though, in his three episodes of “American Horror Story: Asylum,” Gomez-Rejon really upped his game. He managed to compress a number of timelines and plot threads elegantly and efficiently (something that will be required of him, once more, on “The Town That Dreaded Sundown”), with just enough stylistic flourishes to keep your jaw almost continually in contact with the floor (for example, the De Palma-esque split screen in this season’s “Spilt Milk”). Gomez-Rejon seems like the perfect fit for this project, and only adds to our uncomfortable level of excitement.
“The Town That Dreaded Sundown” is scheduled to film this spring, and Gomez-Rejon will return to “American Horror Story” next season to serve as producer and direct every third episode.