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John’s Horror Corner: The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014), a meta-sequel remake of the seminal slasher classic.

January 7, 2019

MY CALL: An engaging and fun movie experience introducing the younger generation to a slasher classic, but unable to deliver on its meta-sequel theme with an ending that falls flat. MOVIES LIKE The Town That Dreaded Sundown: Well, there’s the original The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976). But for more transformative classic slasher movies, I’d direct you to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Black Christmas (1974) and Halloween (1978).

This film approaches the history of the Phantom Killer and the Texarkana Moonlight Murders of 1946 with a much more experienced hand. The introductory montage is effective and, thankfully, utilizes a more serious tone than the hokey-dokey 1976 original. We learn that in this metasequel, the 1976 movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) actually exists as a movie, as it is screened at a drive-in on Halloween 2013. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Glee, American Horror Story) continues the story 67 years later and, I must say, I was quite pleased with how he treated this follow-up to the 1976 classic with a pseudo-scene-by-scene honorarium.

REMAKE/REIMAGINING SIDEBAR: For more horror remakes, I favor the following: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), An American Werewolf in London (1981), The Thing (1982; yes, this was a remake), The Fly (1986), The Mummy (1999; adventure genre), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), The Hills Have Eyes (2006), Friday the 13th (2009), Evil Dead (2013), Carrie (2013) and It (2017). Those to avoid include Poltergeist (2015), The Thing (2011; a prequel/remake), Cabin Fever (2016), A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010), Night of the Demons (2009), Body Snatchers (1993; the second remake), The Invasion (2007; the third remake), War of the Worlds (2005) and The Mummy (2017; total adventure-style reboot-imagining). I’m on the fence about An American Werewolf in Paris (1997), Halloween (2007), My Bloody Valentine (2009) and Fright Night (2011), which are bad or so-so remakes (in my opinion) but decently entertaining movies.

Our first surviving victim and teen heroine Jami (Addison Timlin; Odd Thomas) is with her mother (Veronica Cartwright; Alien, The Witches of Eastwick, The Invasion) as Chief Tillman (Gary Cole; One Hour Photo, Vamp U, Cry Wolf) questions her about the crime. She is diligent, scared and credible as she conducts her own investigation while Texas Ranger Morales (Anthony Anderson; Scream 4, Scary Movie 3-4, Urban Legends: Final Cut) joins the local police bringing some dry humor along. Meanwhile Reverend Cartwright (Edward Herrmann; The Lost Boys, My Boyfriend’s Back) provides spiritual guidance while muddying the waters of the investigation and the young legacy of the original filmmaker (Denis O’Hare; American Horror Story, True Blood, Quarantine, The Pyramid) creates more meta-thematic leads (or red herrings?). So yeah, they’re trying to do a lot with the plot—maybe too much.

So, what did I like about this follow-up to 1976? I dug the style of the camerawork! Nothing ground-breaking; just effective, moving shots that breathe life into the once-tame classic. The 1976 trombone death scene was more stupid than creative (even if it depicted the sick mentality of the killer) whereas here this scene gets the brutal meanness it deserves, complete with over a dozen stabs with several tandem strikes on-screen—in my opinion, this is very redeeming. I was also happy to see the Phantom Killer depicted less like Leatherface (i.e., less like a mouth-breathing menace who stares at you long enough to give you a head start in your escape).

Yes, I loved the intro-montage and the camerawork. But what about the bad? Well, true to the original, our killer still uses a gun. As I mentioned in my review of the original, this just takes me out of it. But worse, our killer now talks—and, making him less a Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers and more a Ghostface or Freddy Krueger, he talks a lot. And talking is fine… if it adds something to the character. But alas, here it added nothing and all the same scenes could have transpired without the flat dialogue. Thankfully, this dialogue was limited to the first act (and the finale), after which he became the Phantom Killer he should be.

But for its shortcomings, this metasequel was (for me) a far more engaging and fun horror movie experience than the original. And, for those who care, it follows more contemporary horror filmmaking tropes—e.g., the inclusion of a graphic sex scene, abundant nudity, and more brutal death scenes. Despite the nudity, the Leatherface-like panting and breast-chewing perversity were not addressed at all. Some of the more brutalized simplicities include the severed head window break scene (a nice spin on a basic necessity for a killer’s entry) complemented by the victim’s bone-exposed leg break during her escape and water-balloon-bombing blood splatters. These small but appreciated flourishes add a lot to otherwise simple and otherwise typical scenarios.

The meta-sequel approach is certainly uncommon and yields much potential to stir audiences. Films like The Human Centipede II (2011) and Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000) made excellent use of the stylish premise. Unfortunately, in this film it produces less critical interplay with the events between the protagonist and the viewer—perhaps largely because, like the prequel The Thing (2011), it essentially replays the original scene by scene with little additional substance. The concept was important at first, and then largely forgotten as simply “the events of the previous movie” to such extant that the big finale revelation had to be “explained” to us in great detail, and rather unnaturally by the killer much like how the Joker runs his mouth so long that Batman figures out how to escape some deadly convoluted scenario. Thus, the third act was the least exciting of the film, and that’s what people tend to remember the most. I wonder if that isn’t the sole reason this didn’t find a timely sequel.

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