We may as well be clear about one thing right off the bat — director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s 2014 film The Town That Dreaded Sundown (now available via instant streaming on both Netflix and Amazon Prime — before it’s even out on Blu-ray or DVD!) isn’t so much a remake of Charles B. Pierce’s 1976 “true-crime slasher” of the same name as it is an updated take on more or less the same material (to such an extent that original screenwriter Earl E. Smith is even given a story credit here) that semi-cleverly incorporates its cinematic progenitor into the proceedings as a “metafictional” trope in a way that almost makes the new flick closer to a sequel than anything else — but not quite.
For the sake of those who absolutely must categorize this in some way, shape, or form, let’s just call it an “extension” of Pierce’s movie and leave it at that, shall we?
Now, I realize that the ’76 original is a “fan favorite” in certain quarters, but let’s be brutally honest about just why that is — sure, it’s a reasonably well-done, if somewhat predictable, product of its time, but if it wasn’t for the infamous trombone killing and the fact that it features Dawn Wells (Mary Ann of Gilligan’s Island fame — although for the record, I’ve always been more of a Ginger guy myself) it probably wouldn’t be talked about nearly as much as it is today. There’s certainly nothing wrong with it, per se — but is there really anything especially memorable about it on more than a gimmicky level?
Don’t all answer at once, please.
In that respect, then, it’s pretty fair to say that Gomez-Rejon follows in his predecessor’s footsteps, because The Town That Dreaded Sundown circa 2014 is a competent, even stylish, slasher, but doesn’t do too terribly much to elevate itself above many of its peers. Screenwriter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has constructed a pleasing enough (if a bit by-the-numbers) “masked killer” story, and the film’s rapid-fire editing and stylish camera work and lighting add a frisson of menace, but in the end it’s all in service to a rather mediocre-by-the-time-it’s-fully-laid-out central premise that can only be elevated so far no matter how ambitious the execution may be.
Anyway, let’s take another trip (assuming you’ve seen the first film) to the state line-spanning town of Texarkana (do I really need to spell out which states? Didn’t think so), shall we? In 1946, a sack-wearing killer committed a series of murders in this sleepy little backwater, and was never caught — he just stopped one day, and for all the townspeople knew, he could damn well have been one of them and lived out the rest of his days among the very people his reign of terror traumatized. Fast forward 30 years and a cult horror movie based on the crimes becomes something of a drive-in sensation. Fast forward nearly 40 more years and that film, which has supposedly played every year on Halloween night somewhere in town, has kept the memory of old Sackhead alive and well — much to the consternation of local political and religious leaders, but to the absolute delight of all Texarkana teens.
It looks like this year, though, somebody’s taken things a step further and decided to mimic the murders on screen in real life — and so the circle is complete. Art imitates life and life, in turn, imitates art. Except — what if this killer is the same guy who committed the crimes upon which the film was based? Odds are slim, I grant you, but his statements seem to imply at least some connection to both the actual killings and to their later fictional counterparts. It’s a puzzle, that’s for sure.
At the center of this little web of small-town intrigue is inquisitive young cutie Jami (Addison Timlin), a standout pupil at the local high school who’s being raised by her grandmother, Lillian (Veronica Cartwright). Jami managed to escape from the killer’s clutches, but her quasi-boyfriend, Nick (Travis Tope) wasn’t so lucky, and became the first of the “new” Sackhead’s victims. She’s determined to figure out just who the man behind the mask is, but Texarkana authorities — most notably Sheriff Underwood (Ed Lauter) and sleazy Chief Deputy Tillman (Gary Cole) — are less than enthusiastic about her snooping around. Could they have something to hide?
Fortunately, the investigation isn’t left entirely in their hands for long — when local “lover’s lanes” continue to be terrorized and bodies continue to pile up, state authorities (at least on the Texas side) begin to take notice, and in due course a team of Texas Rangers led by one “Lone Wolf” Morales (played by Anthony Anderson, who doesn’t look like much of a “Morales” to me, but whatever) make their way into town, precipitating one of those law enforcement “turf wars” we’ve seen a thousand times. This power struggle has the unintended side effect of giving Jami and her “inside” helper, Corey (Spencer Treat Clark) a bit more leeway to pursue leads on their own — they even manage to track down the fictitious “son” of Charles B. Pierce (in the predictable department his name is Charles B. Pierce, Jr., while in the unpredictable department he lives in a boat that’s docked on dry land — oh, and he’s portrayed by Denis O’Hare) — but as you can probably guess, each step that brings them closer to finding the killer also brings the killer closer to them, etc.
Unfortunately, that’s the point at which The Town That Dreaded Sundown a la 2014 starts to stumble. The first 2/3 or so of the movie is a fairly well-executed self-aware slasher that falls somewhere between the generalized “we all know the rules here” set-up of Scream and the more open “movie-within-a-movie” premise the same director gave us with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare — complete with just-gory-and-sleazy-enough-to-get-the-job-done murders — but the final act sees Gomez-Rejon descend into thoroughly timeworn territory and abandon any pretense of serving up something just a bit different in favor of dishing out cinematic “comfort food” for slasher fans. He goes from acknowledging every cliche in the book to openly embracing them with no transition in tone whatsoever, and the end result is a film that seems to wave a white flag of surrender to the very genre tropes it starts out by at least trying to turn on their collective ear.
There’s certainly some good acting along the way — Cole is sensational as always and I particularly enjoyed Edward Herrmann’s turn as the town’s local loud-mouthed preacher — but it’s a bit of a drag to see such a sudden drop-off in terms of a filmmaker’s ambition within the space of less than 90 minutes. I can understand a director becoming less ambitious and more complacent over time, and giving us second and third movies that feel way too much like his or her first, but compacting that entire downward career trajectory into the space of one flick? That’s gotta be some kind of record.
I think it’s relatively safe to say that I’m not “spoiling” anything by revealing that we get another “trombone killing” here — and fortunately for us it occurs well before the film starts to sputter (yay!), so expect some seriously sleazy goodness there — but by the time Gomez-Rejon’s celluloid train sputters to a halt and the central “whodunnit?” of the story runs out of gas, you’ll be relieved the ride is over. It all seemed pretty exciting at first, but in the end, it turns out we were headed nowhere all along.