The 'American Horror Story' team remakes the cult 1976 slasher with gimmicky, mostly unscary results.
Shined-up studio remakes of grindhouse horror classics are usually best appreciated by viewers unfamiliar with the original films’ scruffy texture, but Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s tricksy take on “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” may be an exception: As it riffs on the professed legacy of Charles B. Pierce’s shoestring 1976 serial-killer thriller, this tediously metatextual exercise conjures few inspired jolts of its own. Following a plucky teen on the trail of a masked maniac methodically restaging murders from Pierce’s film, the redesign is riddled with in-jokes, yet contains little of the Grand Guignol humor one might expect from Gomez-Rejon and his “American Horror Story” collaborator Ryan Murphy. An inauspicious effort to mark the return of the long-defunct Orion Pictures label, the film opens in limited release this week, but is unlikely to spark strong word of mouth ahead of Halloween.
The presence of Murphy and “Paranormal Activity” minder Jason Blum as producers promises a commercially minded affair, but despite some slick assembly, the pic seems to fall between two stools in terms of audience appeal. Though it’s too self-reflexive (and insufficiently scary) for the date-night crowd, it isn’t artful enough to pass muster as cinephile-oriented specialty fare. When the sun does indeed go down on this update, it looks likeliest to be remembered as the first theatrical release in 15 years from Orion, retooled by parent company MGM as a distribution arm for limited and VOD fare. Auds old enough to remember the studio’s starry-skied ident should get more of a retro kick out of its appearance at the front of the film than anything that follows.
Gomez-Rejon opens proceedings with a brief summary of Pierce’s film and its impact, noting that it was itself inspired by the real-life series of Phantom Killer murders in the twin towns of Texarkana in 1946. As a kind of warped memorial tradition, the region hosts annual drive-in screenings of the grisly cult item; rather cleverly, the action in the remake begins at one of these. In a sustained tracking shot that promises more technical athleticism than this proficiently made film ultimately delivers, d.p. Michael Goi’s camera snakes menacingly between parked cars filled with randy teens of the variety that went first up for slaughter in the very film they’re watching. When it alights upon Corey (Spencer Treat Clark) and his horror-averse date Jami (Addison Timlin), we know where things are going.
Sure enough, upon leaving the drive-in and stopping in a deserted lovers’ lane, the couple is tormented by a replica of the so-called Phantom, a low-concept psycho with a flour sack over his head who takes generous bites out of his bloodied victims. Only Jami narrowly escapes with her life. It’s the first of several gory encounters that explicitly reference or restage distinctive setpieces from Pierce’s original as the new-model Phantom embarks on his spree — including the famously resourceful stabbing executed with pocket knife and trombone. There’s a certain tidy symmetry to the fact that both the film and its villain are effectively staging copycat murders, but it’s hardly a revelatory gimmick in the post-“Scream” landscape of postmodern horror.
Meanwhile, convinced that the police are neglecting key information, Jami embarks on her own investigation to uncover the killer’s identity, assisted by geeky, sinister-sweet archive employee Nick (Travis Tope). Blind paths and red herrings abound, among them a meeting with Charles B. Pierce Jr. (Denis O’Hare), a boat-dwelling crackpot with elaborate theories about his father’s film. (As it happens, the real-life Pierce has a cameo in an unrelated role, which seems something of a missed opportunity.)
Marked by documentary-style location titles, the action alternates between the Texas and Arkansas halves of Texarkana — rather to the detriment of the film’s pacing, which lags even within an 85-minute runtime. Though auds won’t necessarily be able to guess the killer’s identity, the architecture of the twist is telegraphed some way in advance by this structure. Despite the deliberate setup, the finale of the film seems rushed and perfunctory, while several promising narrative leads are left unexplored in Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s script. One provocative but underdeveloped idea is the threatening presence of militant Christian protest groups decrying the town’s fixation with Pierce’s film as naked exploitation of a tragedy. Given that it openly admits to being a naked re-exploitation thereof, this disappointing remake might have teased that out a little further.