Charles B. Pierce‘s The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) was an independent exploitation film that purported to tell the story of the true crime case of ‘the Phantom Killer’, who committed a brutal series of murders in the town of Texarkana, on the border between Texas and Arkansas, in 1946. The film is mainly discussed today as a proto-stalk-and-slash movie, one of those films, like Bob Clark‘s Black Christmas (1974), that came within a gnat’s hair of the winning formula of Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), but not quite… In the case of Sundown, Pierce gave us a masked killer and a body count structure, with gruesome deaths by gun, knife, and, notoriously, trombone slide, but couldn’t supply the payback climax or the final girl, for the good reason that the actual phantom killer was never caught, he simply stopped, leaving fear and mystery behind him.
If Pierce‘s film could be said to have been ahead of the pack, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon‘s new version would appear to be tardy to the party, arriving long after every other slasher movie of the 70s has been remade, to varying degrees of worthlessness. This time, it’s Halloween 2008, in Texarkana and Jami (Addison Timlin) feels uncomfortable at a pop up drive-in screening of… The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Her date gallantly drives them off to ‘park’, but they are attacked by a hooded, gun-toting maniac, a copycat phantom who only lets her live to send a message and tell the world that he’s back. Thereafter other murders occur, following the pattern laid down in ’46 (or the movie version thereof), the town grows more and more paranoid and hysterical, the Texas Rangers are called in, and Jami begins her own investigation, alongside local archive nerd Nick (Travis Trope), convinced the murders of ’46 hold the key to the killings around her…
Sundown ’14 is, for most of its running time, considerably more fun than it should be. A fizzy, unhealthy concoction brought to us by the people behind Glee, American Horror Story, Sinister and the Paranormal Activity franchise. It looks handsome, and as with all the grindhouse remakes, clearly has fancier technical resources to hand than its progenitor. It moves at a fair clip, the small town weirdness is well realised, camerawork and editing are lively and inventive, and it always helps to have the likes of Gary Cole and Veronica Cartwright filling out your cast. Moreover the victims are actually sympathetic characters for a change, rather than the parade of obnoxious ‘types’ that normally populate this branch of cinema these days, neatly established in swift tabloid strokes, and including a rather sweet, nervous, first-time gay couple.
It’s made texturally and textually more interesting by the presence of the ’76 film effectively haunting this one. It pops up, looking faded, bleached out, and rather shonky, on screen after screen, and almost subliminal blips of it are inserted into the edit. Further, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s script has all kinds of meta-games to play: we have Pierce’s son as a character, and even see the 70s film crew in one travelling shot. Most amusingly we have Anthony Anderson as ‘Lone Wolf’ the Texas Ranger realising, upon viewing Sundown for the first time, that he has parroted the dialogue of Ben Johnson, who played the character in the original. There is a theme running of how real life gets turned, over time, into stories, the past never lets go, and of how the Phantom Killer becomes the Boogey Man.
All good nasty fun, so it’s a pity that the makers turned for the finale to the Kevin Williamson Scream sequel model of ‘whodunnit’ reveal and final girl payback. For one thing, the ‘whodunnit’ reveal at the climax of a slasher movie always felt surplus to requirements to me, like being tasked with doing a crossword puzzle at the end of a rollercoaster ride. All the running and screaming suddenly gives way to discussions of identity and motivation that seem absurdly Scooby Doo. For another, the climax plonks the remake firmly into a run-of-the-mill stalk-and-slash model when, for a while there, it seemed smarter than that. So, entertaining enough, but a little disheartening. The modern drive-in won’t allow for ambiguity, and it’s not over until somebody gets ‘empowered’. Ah, for the 70s, where violence was always degrading…
Watch the trailer: