Saturday, July 11, 2015


The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014) d. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (USA)

One of the smarter and genuinely worthwhile remakes to come along in recent memory, this updating of the 1976 Charles B. Pierce drive-in stalwart manages to both acknowledge and incorporate its predecessor, using the original 1946 murders and the docudrama they inspired as the springboard for an entirely new spate of slayings in modern day Texarkana. Following a Halloween-night screening of Pierce’s film, local gal Jami (Addison Timlin) sees her boyfriend (Spencer Treat Clark) brutally butchered before her eyes by none other than the gunny-sacked “Phantom Killer,” who then releases her to spread the word that he has returned... and that more blood will soon be shed.

In revisiting Earl E. Smith’s script, screenwriter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa does far more inspired work than his efforts on remaking another acknowledged 1976 classic, that of 2013’s Carrie, where his contributions amounted to little more than adding smart phones and YouTube to the equation. The ubiquitous tablets and internet also play roles here, but there’s a refreshing sense of mystery and small-town atmosphere that give it a genuinely timeless atmosphere and Aguirre-Sacasa walks a marvelous line between homage and fresh meat. For example, our badass Texas Ranger Morales (Anthony Anderson) likes to be called “Lone Wolf,” just the way Ben Johnson’s Texas Ranger Morales did, and the original’s most memorable offing – the “tromboning” kill – is recreated in (slightly) more vicious fashion.

The film is produced by Jason Blum (Paranormal Activity, The Conjuring) and Ryan Murphy (co-creator of TV’s American Horror Story) and guided by the sure hand of Gomez-Rejon, director of this year’s Sundance sensation Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and there’s more than enough evidence on display that he’s the real deal. It’s probably a little too slick for hardcore old-school fans, but Pierce’s film is far from sacred territory, being hobbled by a host of weak performances and its notorious non-ending ending.

Despite its flash, however, this is no watered-down PG-13 teenbait, but rather a straight-up horror flick with an estimable body count and no shortage of sanguinary thrills. The killings here are vicious and bloody, and our masked killer is given strength and purpose by stuntman Andy Abele; in the same way that Kane Hodder “played” Jason Voorhees instead of just putting on the hockey mask and swinging away, Abele tenders a genuine physical performance that deserves attention.

Speaking of performances, Blum, Murphy, and Gomez-Rejon have managed to assemble a surprisingly strong cast for this type of material. To wit: Gary Cole, the late Ed Lauter, the late Edward Herrmann (in his penultimate screen role), and Joshua Leonard, with Veronica Cartwright lending her particular brand of quirk as Jami’s grandmother and Denis O’Hare lending his as Charles B. Pierce, Jr. (Yes, the son of the original filmmaker. How's that for meta?) As our heroine, Timlin is brainy and determined, but also knows how to squeal in terror when the occasion calls for it. Morganna Bridgers also has a brief but memorable scene as an unfortunate hotel murder victim.

Ludwig Gorasson’s unsettling score works perfectly in tandem with Michael Goi’s (another American Horror Story alum) flashy camerawork, with lots of wet and squishy foley work amidst the metallic sching! of blades piercing flesh and bone. And while Gomez-Rejon doesn’t shy away from the jump scares (this is a Blumhouse production after all), he clearly knows how to develop tension and release, as well as a palpable sense of dread. It’s such a pleasure to see a genuinely talented director doing more than is required – did no one tell him this was just another remake? – and one can only hope that this isn’t the last genre outing we’ll see from him, now that he’s all accoladed and stuff.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown is available now on Blu-ray as a Best Buy Exclusive (no extras except a trailer) and can be ordered HERE: (The disc hits Amazon and other retailers in September.)


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