Walking into Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown, I expected a fairly straightforward remake of the Texarkana horror story, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s screenplay inserts us into a world where Charles B. Pierce’s original movie exists, repeatedly referencing the old-school horror flick through spliced-in clip insertions and actual character acknowledgement. It’s an extremely metaphysical movie that twists and turns in the name of horror, yet there’s also a recycled feel to it all that becomes a bit repetitive instead of sneakily ingenious. The 2014 version finds a way to become some hybrid sequel/remake slasher homage that tries to pay respect while traversing its own gory story, but the novelty of comparison becomes rather predictable as “The Phantom” hacks his way through a new batch of victims. It’s a fun and spirited watch, don’t get me wrong, but Gomez-Rejon doesn’t quite achieve the Southern cult status that he strives for.
Decades after the original murders that inspired Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown, a hooded copycat killer brings fear back to the town of Texarkana when he starts killing townsfolk in ways that mirror the original film. While some believe it’s the original “Phantom” coming back to finish what he started, a local girl named Jami (Addison Timlin) has her own theory about who would want to unearth one town’s disturbing past. After surviving the initial attack that starts The Phantom’s new rampage, Jami makes it her mission to uncover the true identity of the new villain. Can she put a stop to the killer before he recreates the entire film? Or more importantly, can she figure out why he kept her alive in the first place?
Going the meta route is a truly unique way to reinvigorate your horror remake, especially in the way that Aguirre-Sacasa writes the original into his slasher flick update. While some remakes sting together creative interpretations that honor an original film’s kill sequences, The Town That Dreaded Sundown instead finds a way to simply recreate each gory death without changing much. Characters know exactly what’s coming next based on Pierce’s film, mapping out The Phantom’s original pattern, yet there’s still no stopping death after death from drenching cornfields in blood. Gomez-Rejon orchestrates a film that’s as much a commentary on exploiting horror films in the sickest of ways as it is a modern update on a cult classic, which strikes a unique tone that carries through much of the movie.
Another fun little note is how Gomez-Rejon creates a modernized adventure that echoes a period-piece personality from the 70s. It feels like Texarkana is a town stuck in time, polluted with flannel shirts, dusty farmhouses and town hall meetings led by religious dominance, despite taking place in 2013. This forcefully hammers home the “vague remake” vibe of The Town That Dreaded Sundown, which is only momentarily broken by blaring dubstep music and a few technological advances that didn’t exist back in the good ol’ days. The only real updates come in the form of silenced pistols used by The Phantom, who opts for sleeker models instead of the now-relics pictured in Pierce’s original.
But, in the same breath, there’s a frustration in Gomez-Rejon’s project. Without addressing the rather mundane nature of kill setups and easy-to-follow plotting, why is it that moronic kids still find it necessary to go out after sundown with a killer on the loose? The town of Texarkana knows every single scene in The Town That Dreaded Sundown by heart, and even with The Phantom on the loose once again, characters still find it necessary to make the same foolish mistakes made 65 years prior? I’d say blowing your boyfriend in the middle of a deserted junkyard can wait until the murderous psychopath is arrested or killed, unless that little bit of oral pleasure is worth getting decapitated over. Despite some wickedly sinister kills that take Pierce’s brutality to new levels of gruesome intensity, paint-by-numbers horror logic muddles what cleverness Aguirre-Sacasa achieves while rehashing the classic tale.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown boasts a creepy vibe and bloody slasher kills with a keen cinematic eye to boot, but it’s not a film that showcases superior genre reinvention. Aside from playfully blurring Hollywood with reality, Gomez-Rejon’s film is nothing but a kill-by-kill slasher flick that relies solely on obscene gore and shock-value scares. Luckily there are a variety of deaths and enough chilling scares to get audiences from start to finish without much of a problem, putting Texarkana back on the map for all the wrong reasons.
Gomez-Rejon's classic-slasher-update finds a unique way to repurpose Charles B. Pierce's original material, creating a sequel/remake hybrid that's fun enough for some cheap date night scares.