Addison Timlin, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, Anthony Anderson, Ben Jonson, Charles B. Pierce, Charles B. Pierce Jr., cinema, Ed Lauter, Edward Herrmann, feature-film debut, film reviews, films, Gary Cole, horror, horror movies, Joshua Leonard, meta-films, Movies, remakes, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, slasher films, Spencer Treat Clark, Texarkana, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, Veronica Cartwright
Despite an intense dislike of unnecessary remakes and reboots, I’m still able to concede one point: there are certain films that could actually benefit from a second take. Whether a good idea that was scuttled due to production issues or errant elements (bad script, bad actors, bad effects, etc…) or just something that could have used a little longer in the oven, some films just don’t get a fair shake the first time around. A prime example of this particular phenomenon is Charles B. Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976): while this proto-slasher – Pierce’s film actually came out a few years before Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and several years before it would influence Jason Voorhee’s sack-cloth mask in Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) – has a lot to recommend it, including some truly ahead-of-its-time brutality and violence, it’s also plagued by a mess of tonal inconsistencies and unnecessary comedic elements. In fact, one of the single biggest problems with the film is director Pierce’s performance as a bumbling cop, a bit of comedic relief that’s as unwelcome as it is amateurish and grating. If ever there was a movie that could use the ol’ remake treatment, this would definitely be one of the front-runners.
This, of course, brings us to 2014 and a long overdue remake of Pierce’s original chiller, courtesy of TV director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. As previously mentioned, there aren’t a ton of crooked lines to straighten: keep the creeping sense of dread, the isolated Texas locations, the terrifying, masked killer, lose the stupid comic relief and voila: low-key exploitation shocker, ready to serve. In an era where remakes tend to become more straight-forward, streamlined, humorless versions of their predecessors, this seems like the biggest no-brainer of all time. Despite starting strong, however, Gomez-Rejon manages to screw this up more direly than Pierce ever could, all while breaking one of my cardinal rules of horror films: he turns a formerly silent killer into a chatter-box and, in the process, scuttles every last bit of tension, fear and power that the original film held. What we’re left with, unfortunately, is a meta-fictional mess that loses the intentional comedy but replaces it with a groan-worthy “tough talkin’ villain who’s hardly a better alternative.
The smartest thing that Gomez-Rejon’s remake does is to not only acknowledge the original film but to find ways to organically work it into the framework of the current one. To that end, we have a similar situation to something like Scream 3 (2000), wherein the events that took place in the original film are treated as fact: in this case, there really were a series of unsolved murders that were perpetrated in the Texarkana area in 1976. The burlap-masked killer was never caught, although suspicions and accusations have flown ever since. Pierce’s film became an ingrained part of the local culture and even became something of a Halloween staple in Texarkana. The events that we’re about to see, we’re told, took place in the area in 2013, nearly forty years after the original murders.
The events in question, of course, are more murders: copycats of the original killings, to be exact. It all begins when Jami (Addison Timlin) and her boyfriend, Corey (Spencer Treat Clark), leave a drive-in screening of Pierce’s film to go neck on Lover’s Lane. Faster than you can say “deja vu all over again,” the burlap-sack-bedecked Phantom shows up and brutally dispatches Corey, before letting Jami leave, albeit with a directive: make the towns-people remember. To that end, we get some bush-league detective work as Jami runs around and tries to dig up the backstory on the Phantom, all while the killer mows down the frightened civilians in pretty much the same ways as the original film. This all culminates in a final “twist” revelation that comes out of left-field, as surprise revelations, double-crosses and an ocean of red herrings come together to create one boisterous, if highly nonsensical, potboiler.
Before the killer speaks, Gomez-Rejon’s film actually builds up a decent amount of suspense and atmosphere. In ways, the beginning is reminiscent of the original Halloween (organically, not slavishly) and has no shortage of style. Once the Phantom opens his pie-hole, however, it’s almost as if the film takes a hard left turn into over-heated pulp and it never recovers. The style becomes gradually fussier and overly flashy, the dialogue becomes ridiculously pulpy and one unbelievable situation rolls into another stretch of belief with uncanny ease. It’s almost as if the arbitrary decision to make the Phantom talk necessitated pitching the film in a more frenetic, over-the-top direction than the original. It’s not a dark comedy, per se, but it’s also not a patch on the original film’s intentional comedy, either.
Case in point: the tough-as-nails Texas Ranger that Ben Jonson portrayed in the original has been replaced by Anthony Anderson’s outrageously over-the-top ‘Lone Wolf’ Morales in the remake. Anderson mugs and chews scenery ferociously, although he manages to stop just shy of original director Pierce’s slapstick performance. It’s an odd choice, especially when we get the scene where Lone Wolf watches a copy of the original film and studies Jonson’s performance: it’s a meta-moment within a meta-film but it doesn’t seem to reveal anything about either Lone Wolf or the film, itself. It’s a problem that comes up again and again: the remake seems to draw attention to or accentuate elements from the first film but to no end.
In certain ways, the film’s devotion to uncovering the Phantom’s backstory (his origin story, if you will) makes this akin to Rob Zombie’s redos of the Halloween series, rather than the murder-procedural of the first film. It’s a decidedly different tone, especially once the film really gets going and seems to be a way to humanize or sympathize (at least to some extent) with the killer, ala Zombie’s abused Michael Myers. I’ve never been a fan of the Halloween remakes and this sometimes brought those to mind in unpleasant ways.
Despite my numerous issues with the film, Gomez-Rejon’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown is certainly not without its charms. The film is constantly stylish, even if it often feels cluttered and overly busy and the effects work is quite impressive: while the original film was no shrinking violet when it came to violence, the remake ups the ante in some pretty significant ways. A setpiece involving a severed head is pretty silly but a protracted stabbing has the uncomplicated, reptilian zeal of a true nightmare. If nothing else, the film usually looks pretty good and is satisfying on a purely visceral level.
The film also has an impressive supporting cast, with familiar faces like Gary Cole, Ed Lauter and the late Edward Herrmann showing up in various capacities. While the whole film is over-the-top and rather feverishly pitched, there’s plenty of game performances to go round. For her part, Addison Timlin (one of the best things about the otherwise depressingly mundane Odd Thomas (2013)) does a fine job as the hero, even if the script keeps trying to saddle her with unnecessary love stories. If anything, I kind of wish that this cast could have come together in a better project: they’re all fun, in pieces, but don’t really add up to a cohesive whole.
Ultimately, I can’t help but feel that Gomez-Rejon’s film is a heap of missed opportunities. In many ways, Pierce’s original was a perfectly serviceable car that just needed a new door: the remake replaces the door, true, but also overhauls the engine in ways that cause the car to cease running. There’s nothing quite as terrifying as a silent, emotionless, motiveless killer: when you can’t reason, bargain or plead with someone, then there truly is no hope. Charles B. Pierce knew this, as did John Carpenter. By making his Phantom speak, taunt, bully and bluster, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon throws out the one element of the original film that unequivocably worked. It’s not how you’d work on a car and it’s definitely not how you build a horror film.