Studio: Image Entertainment
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Writer: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Producer: Jason Blum, Ryan Murphy
Stars: Addison Timlin, Veronica Cartwright, Gary Cole, Edward Herrmann, Joshua Leonard, Denis O’Hare, Anthony Anderson, Ed Lauter, Travis Tope, Spencer Treat Clark, Wes Chatham
37 years after the original film based on the Moonlight Murders of 1946, a new Phantom Killer stalks the town of Texarkana.
When director Charles B. Pierce and his screenwriter Earl E. Smith put their heads together in 1976 to bring Texarkana’s notorious “Moonlight Murders” to the big screen, they couldn’t commit to a true crime police procedural, sensationalized slasher, or cornball comedy. Rather than settle on one direction, or come up with a seamless tone to blend all three, the pair dispensed with concerns for consistency and lumped every semi-formed idea together to create the genre-bending midnight movie oddity “The Town That Dreaded Sundown.”
So when it came time for director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and screenwriter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa to collaborate on the 2014 follow-up, it’s no wonder that they remained true to that schizophrenic spirit by Frankensteining an unusual amalgamation of their own. Under the Sauron gaze of uber-producers Jason Blum and Ryan Murphy, Gomez-Rejon and Aguirre-Sacasa made a movie that is part sequel, part remake, and part meta-fiction, yet so vague about defining its combined DNA that it is undeniably “The Town That Dreaded Sundown.”
In a nifty twist last employed to similar effect by “The Human Centipede II,” 2014’s “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” takes place in a world where the preceding film not only exists, but also plays an integral role in the storyline. It’s Halloween 2013. The town of Texarkana has more or less embraced the pop culture appeal of Charles B. Pierce’s original film by staging annual showings of “Sundown” at the local drive-in. College hopeful Jami isn’t much of a throwback horror enthusiast, however. She drops the hint to her beau Corey and they trade their spot at the screening for a quieter one on Lovers Lane.
Before Corey’s hand can go all the way up Jami’s skirt, an uninvited guest arrives. Corey takes a knife to the back and Jami locks eyes through a sackcloth hood with an all-new incarnation of the infamous Phantom Killer. This madman has a message for the townspeople before embarking on a new spree of terror, and he wants Jami to herald his arrival.
“Sundown” does its damnedest to be as erratically eclectic as its predecessor in every regard possible. The film is set in 2013, yet the wardrobe and set dressing are clearly meant to replicate seventies chic. The 1976 movie plays a part in the plot, yet several characters have identical names and roles, e.g. “Lone Wolf” Morales and “Spark Plug.”
Texarkana’s border-blending duality is also addressed with curious geography. Virtually every time onscreen text identifies a location, it is specified as falling on the Arkansas half of the map. The majority of the murders seem to take place there, too. Yet the only law enforcement officials we spend any time with hail from the Texas side of things. Sheriff Rutland from the Arkansas jurisdiction appears in a Town Hall meeting, but is conspicuously missing from actual investigation activity.
Maybe that is because the movie already has too many lawmen in its kitchen. If I were unfamiliar with the first film, I’d point out the unneeded excess of having Ed Lauter play a sheriff, Gary Cole play a deputy sheriff, and Joshua Leonard play a deputy, only for Anthony Anderson to show up as a Texas Ranger who quite literally does not do a single thing to meaningfully advance the investigation or the story. Except that is exactly what the same character did in 1976. Although at least Ben Johnson featured in that movie’s finale, whereas Anderson merely duplicates the real Phantom Killer’s m.o. by inexplicably vanishing without a trace.
Aping the original’s chameleon personality, “Sundown” 2014 alternates between self-aware style and absent sense on coin toss whims. But it seems to do so knowingly, as if daring to be caught red-handed so it can offer, “that’s how the original did it!” as a “get out of jail free” card.
It’s tough to say with total certainty if “Sundown” 2014 is in on the joke of intentionally mirroring everything that was structurally faulty and rhythmically disjointed about “Sundown” 1976, but I think that it is. For one thing, the script comes from Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who is no stranger to putting smart spins on nostalgia with a simultaneously respectful and rebellious spirit. While the 2013 remake based on his “Carrie” adaptation may have been a polarizer (review here), Aguirre-Sacasa’s unlikely mix of adult horror with iconic characters in the comic books “Afterlife with Archie” and “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” is endlessly entertaining and wickedly inspired fun.
I’ve also heard rumors of retooling suggesting that the weird way the “Sundown” climax shakes out is not what the creators originally intended. Thinking about how the film was caught with a number of its Blumhouse brethren in a purgatory of unreleased uncertainty, I’m inclined to believe that some editing ideas born post-production may have been retrofitted into the release.
That would at least explain why the film trades on its slick cinematic style to make a confusedly limp attempt at adding a whodunit element. Gary Cole and Edward Herrmann are just two of the actors featured in close-ups giving shifty-eyed glances. Though since there is no question about the masked killer being a blue-eyed young man, one wonders why bother with hollow bait for a red herring?
Perhaps having that freedom to bound all over the place is the beauty in being a sequel/reboot/companion to a movie that was never reverentially cherished in the first place. It’s not like following in the footsteps of a John Carpenter contemporary classic or a Hitchcock masterpiece that comes with inherent enmity from a fervent fanbase determined to lambast before the first frame even films. “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” is indecisive about its purpose and inconsistent in its approach. Ironically, that makes it completely consistent with Charles B. Pierce’s 1976 oddball entertainer as a suitable slasher that makes up in cult charm what it misses in meaning.
Review Score: 60