REBOOT OF 1970s CULT FILM IS A NEAR MASTERPIECE: Weak ending mars otherwise fine effort from Texas filmmaker...
By Don Stradley
Serial killers must love Texarkana. As we see in the new version of The Town That Dreaded Sundown, the streets are always empty, and there's plenty of land between homes. Not only do your screams go unheard, but it takes a while to find your body after it's been dumped in the weeds.
This vast emptiness is what made the original 1976 version by Charles Pierce so haunting, and is used to eerie perfection in the new version by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, a television director best known for his work on 'American Horror Story' and 'Glee'. This is Rejon's first feature, and to his credit he's handed us a movie that is miles above the average run-of-the-mill slasher movie.
The story begins with Texarkana's annual showing of the 1976 film, which was a creepy retelling of an allegedly true series of unsolved murders that had happened in the 1940s. The original movie featured a killer with a cloth sack over his head, with nothing but holes cut out for eyes and a sadistic side that would have impressed the Zodiac killer. As the old flick plays at a rundown drive-in theater, a young couple drives off to a secluded spot in the woods to get better acquainted. In short order, a new hooded killer emerges from the darkness and kills the boy, while the girl manages to run away. The "Phantom", as the killer was once known, seems to be back in Texarkana, nearly 70 years after his first bloody strike.
The movie's first hour or so is breathtaking. Rejon and cinematographer Michael Goi create an atmosphere that recalls not only the original movie, but many 1970s horror films, most notably the dank, swampy aura of dreck like I Spit On Your Grave. Goi's camera also swoops in and out and around the scenery, creating a surreal fishbowl effect. Rejon creates some of the best murder tableaux in recent memory, particularly when the new Phantom stalks a victim through a wheat field, and butchers her in front of a solitary scarecrow. This scene, with its mix of sadism against a bucolic background, is what a '70s splatter flick would be like had it been directed by Terrence Malick.
With the murders starting again, the movie takes on a "who done it" tone, with the girl who survived the first attack (Addison Timlin) researching the original murders. The plot thickens, but I'll end my description right here, to preserve the movie's many secrets.
The Town The Dreaded Sundown is almost worth seeing just for an excellent supporting cast of character actors, which includes Gary Cole, Edward Herrmann, Dennis O'Hare, and Veronica Cartwright. The late Ed Lauter, who passed away just after the production had wrapped, was one of Hollywood's most reliable hands for many years, and is on hand here as a sheriff. These old pros are so great to watch in comparison to some of the movie's younger performers, who leave no lasting impression.
As for the Phantom, Rejon errs by having him talk too much, hissing cryptically from inside his sack mask. In the original, the Phantom remained silent, which made him scarier and more otherworldly, a sort of predecessor to Halloween's Michael Myers and Friday the 13th's Jason. Still, the new fellow is threatening enough, the sort who will cut off your head and throw it through a window to make a point.
Rejon also errs with a pat ending that will leave the majority of viewers disappointed. Rejon, you see, is determined to put a face and a reason behind the killings, as if providing a half-assed sense of closure is better than the feeling despair that made the original so memorable. This was a misstep, and it comes close to ruining a perfectly lovely film about a mass murderer.