The original “Town That Dreaded Sundown,” released on Christmas Eve 1976 and based on actual events, was a minor cult classic that cast a long shadow. Its cinema verite aesthetic, which combined deadpan narration, publicly available music cues, and chilling reenactments, created a kind of true crime sensationalism that would be borrowed by everything from “Unsolved Mysteries” to the current “found footage” horror craze. Even if you’ve never seen the original movie, chances are you’ve felt its pull. So it’s with some trepidation that we approached the new “Town That Dreaded Sundown” remake, a film that would not only have to live up to the boldness of the original, but also the countless imitators who approximated its sensibilities in the years that followed. And while “Town That Dreaded Sundown” is ambitious and supremely weird, it fails to cohere into something more resonant. For much of the movie it feels like what would have happened if Charlie Kaufman had written “Scream.” Then it becomes another dumb slasher movie.
Much like the original, the remake begins with some ominous voiceover narration that sums up the events of the 1946 murders that rocked the small border town of Texarkana, a unique place that straddles the Texas/Arkansas border and has, fittingly, two sheriffs and two mayors. The movie’s underlying meta-textuality is then introduced, via an incredible long take showing much of Texarkana’s population at a drive-in that is showing the original film. A young couple (played by Addison Timlin and Spencer Treat Clark) sneak away from the screening and are brutally attacked by a figure reporting to be the Phantom Killer, the serial killer that terrorized Texarkana and was dramatized, memorably, in the original film with a sackcloth tied over his head. The young boy is killed but she survives, and later decides that she is going to figure out what happened back in 1946 and who is responsible for these most recent murders.
For a while, at least, “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” feels like something that could be a new classic. There’s a lively breathlessness to the filmmaking that occasionally feels experimental and somewhat revolutionary. Horror movies have toyed with the movie-within-a-movie premise before, to varying degrees of success and entertainment levels. Wes Craven‘s “New Nightmare” might be the most interesting of the lot, since it took an established franchise and turned it inside out like an old sock, and paved the way for something like “Scream,” which Craven also directed. But what makes “Town That Dreaded Sundown” feel so fresh and new is the way that the movie-within-a-movie was inspired by actual events, so that the past and present get shuffled, with moments from the original film occasionally inserted. It gives the entire enterprise a kaleidoscopic, hallucinogenic kick, especially when the filmmakers play with the idea that the young girl, traumatized by her parents’ sudden death, has been hooked on experimental medications and could just be dreaming up the whole thing.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, one of the very best directors of Ryan Murphy‘s baroquely insane “American Horror Story,” makes his feature debut with “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” (Murphy produced the film too), and it’s easy to see why he was chosen. On “American Horror Story,” Gomez-Rejon was able to synthesize elements from his favorite filmmakers – a languid tracking shot from Alfred Hitchcock here, a byzantine use of split-screen from Brian De Palma there — and create something new and electric from those various parts. His visual stamp is all over “Town That Dreaded Sundown,” but it’s clear from the movie’s prolonged and contentious post-production period that his original vision has been tempered with, sometimes noticeably so. Moments of studio interference announce themselves loudly, from inserts that were forcibly wedged into a complicated tracking shot to moments that end abruptly (like when a character gets murdered while receiving oral sex and the camera pans down his corpse but cuts right before it reaches his penis). The idea of the pharmaceutical drugs being responsible for some of the young girl’s visions was also toned down; the visions remain but references to drugs have been almost completely removed.
And it’s a shame, too, because there are so many ideas that could have been explored more fully if the powers that be were less interested in a typical slasher film. There’s a whole tract of the film dedicated to the fact that the town has been frozen in time. People dress like they’re still in the seventies, old cars putter down the street and nobody owns a cell phone. It’s saying something about the nature of grief; if you don’t let go of a horrible event, from a town being ravaged by a series of brutal murders or your parents being senselessly killed in an automobile accident, then that horrible event defines your whole existence. (It also says something about the sleepy seductiveness of small town life.) Gomez-Rejon’s visual playfulness (working from a snappy script by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa), which allows him to nimbly toggle between the past, present, and movie-land versions of Texarkana, makes the thematic undercurrents bubble and pop.
Towards the movie’s third act, though, the adventurousness of the filmmaking and the mind-boggling cleverness of the script seem to take a back seat to what end up being a series of rote slasher movie set pieces, which become increasingly uninvolving and trite. The big reveal of the killer, in particular, has the sensation of being compiled not by a writer or writers but from the suggestion cards from bored test audiences, who wanted “Town That Dreaded Sundown” to more closely conform to the conventions of the genre. This is no way to make a horror movie, and it’s no way to tamper with a horror movie that is trying to be so wildly different. If Gomez-Rejon had stuck to his guns and made the movie that he initially set out to make (and in the post-screening Q&A he lamented being forced to cut fifteen minutes of the film’s running time, including a number of meta-textual flourishes), then we would be heralding “Town That Dreaded Sundown” as an envelope-pushing confection, a dizzyingly inventive horror film on the level of “Cabin in the Woods.” Instead, it feels like something half-formed; a first draft of a much better movie. Maybe at some point the original director’s cut will be released. But it’s much more likely that, like the original movie, it will gently fade into obscurity. Maybe it will inspire an equally rabid cult audience. But we doubt it. [C+]