This was a surprise. Horror remakes are two a penny nowadays and as anyone who saw the Poltergeist remake the other day will know, most of them are either pointless or rubbish or pointless rubbish. The Town That Dreaded Sundown goes one better than most of all the re imaginings and reboots of late and is neither a straight up copy nor a sequel, its its own crazy little thing. And I loved it.
The 1976 version of The Town That Dreaded Sundown was a very strange and straight laced docu-drama movie which recreated the events of a genuine case from the town of Texarkana: for three months in the late 1940s a spree of killings took place usually involving young couples or individuals in isolated parts of town who were brutally stabbed to death. The case was known as the Texarkana Moonlight Murders and gripped the locals in a state of fear, then suddenly after three months the killings stopped and the perpetrator was never found. The documentary look and voice-of-authority style narration made the film feel dated even when it came out, but it also leant it a creepy air of authenticity and as hardly anyone has seen it anyway, it seemed ripe for a remake.
But no, that’s not what director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon has done. Instead the original killings and the 1976 movie are used as a starting point for a fictional story set in modern day Texarkana, where the murders have started up again. Technically this is really rather in poor taste but it doesn’t just feel like a Friday the 13th rip off using the Moonlight Murders as a back drop to show naked teens getting chopped up. Okay, so there ARE naked teens being chopped up, but the film focus’s heavily on the effect this has on grieving families and friends, and the locals absolutely terrified of losing their lives or there loved ones. Some of the best moments are just shots of deserted streets, all life having gone from them, when only a few actual lives have been taken.
The film is also incredibly meta, but in a way that organically works within the context of the story rather some knowing wink type fashion. We begin (after a documentary style introduction to get us up to speed) with locals at a drive in actually watching the 1976 film. The movie tackles head on how macabre it is that the descendants of the victims actually relish and celebrate the notoriety of the murders. And its not even necessarily what actually happened in the early fifties that people talk about but just the story as far as how the ’76 film tells it, which was only loosely factual at best. The local preacher walks between cars telling the viewers that even watching that film is a sin, and its almost like he telling us that too. How can we watch something based on such horrific facts as a piece of saturday evening entertainment?
In fact the star of the film, Addison Timlin, agrees. She’s watching the drive in movie with her date and isn’t enjoying it one bit. It makes her feel uncomfortable so they drive off to be alone in a secluded part of town, and that’s when a man with a bag over his head show up…
In many ways Timlin’s character, Jami, is a classic horror final girl, she’s a bit of a loner and socially awkward, but also more resourceful that everyone else around her. However, there’s a lot more to her than just the usual tropes. The main thing is that her character that is absolutely haunted by grief, having lost her parents as a child. When her date is murdered in front of her by the new Moonlight Murderer her grief is so palpable that it almost flops out of the screen and lies on the floor in front of you like a big sobbing ball. There is a scene where Jami is talking about the murder and her face fills the whole screen. Timlin is just incredible here. I hope she gets more good roles so we can see more of her range, or you know, get the role of a girlfriend or wife of the main star in a blockbuster and get a lot of exposure but no decent lines.
Timlin is surrounded by lots of good character actors in the town too so the whole affair is classily acted. You’ve got the great Veronica Cartwright as her grandma, Gary Cole as the sherif and Anthony Anderson as the Texas ranger Lone Wolf Morales – “call me Lone Wolf,” he says “I’ve earned that name so I want you to use it.” I have no idea what that was all about but you’ve got to admire anyone who can earn the name Lone Wolf.
The other big star of the movie is surely director Gomez-Rejon himself. He uses the old John Carpenter trick of having the killer slightly out of frame or not where you expect him to be to help up rack up the tension during the killing set pieces. He uses a lot of shots with reflections: reflections in mirrors, windows, even eyeballs. There are a few lovely deep focus shots with Timlin in the very close foreground and the killer some way behind her which works really well in chase scenes. The film is both incredibly violent and not at the same time. There’s certainly a lot of blood and left over body parts but when the actual stabbings happen the camera is often facing the wrong way so you just hear the knife going in again and again and again rather than see it, but the look on other people’s faces and the sound of steel tearing into flesh has the same effect.
The killer himself is a funny old bird. He obviously loves his bag-on-the-head look which technically should be rubbish but instead every time you see it looming out of the darkness it is genuinely unnerving – something so simple and obvious but maybe that’s what makes it work. The bag is something mundane and normal, just like the town the killer is terrorising. It’s good to see a killer who is almost iconic though with his simple style – bag-on-his-head man! I know Jason wore one in Friday the 13th Part 2 but old Baggo beat him to it in 1976 so this modern one can do wear it too. He does many of his killings with a dirty great big knife but he’s also happy to use a gun and even a trombone at one point: yeah, I know, a trombone. It was in the old film as well and for all I know was used in the original case. Bit weird really but maybe he had some brass band camp issues from when he was a kid.
The only thing I thought was a little disappointing was the fact that although the film has a strong who-done-it element to it, and Jami’s investigations are bookish and interesting, you can guess who the killer is the moment he steps on screen. Or at least I could, and I’m usually the last person to guess that kind of thing even if the killer has a T-Shirt on saying “I Kill for Pleasure” and his name is Jimmy McKillsome.
Still a minor problem. The Town That Dreaded Sundown is beautifully made with intelligence and insight into the issue of personal and community grief as well as a comment on the nature of legend and storytelling. However, it is also a tense stalk n’ slasher that understands that sometimes the best thing you can give your audience is a teen being stabbed through the back with a trombone by a man wearing a bag over his head.