You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Town That Dreaded Sundown’

The 'American Horror Story' team remakes the cult 1976 slasher with gimmicky, mostly unscary results.

Addison Timlin, Travis Tope, Spencer Treat Clark, Veronica Cartwright, Gary Cole, Edward Herrmann, Joshua Leonard, Denis O'Hare, Anthony Anderson, Andy Abele, Ed Lauter, Wes Chatham.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2561546/?ref_=ttrel_rel_tt

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'The Town That Dreaded Sundown'

Reviewed at London Film Festival (Cult), Oct. 14, 2014. (Also in Fantastic Fest.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 85 MIN.

Production: An Orion Pictures release of an Orion Pictures Corp. presentation of a Blumhouse Prods./Ryan Murphy Prods. production. Produced by Jason Blum, Ryan Murphy. Executive producers, Jeanette Volturno-Brill, Jessica Hall. Co-producer, Kaylene Carlson.

Crew: Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. Screenplay, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, based on the film written by Earl E. Smith. Camera (color, HD), Michael Goi; editor, Joe Leonard; music, Ludwig Goransson; music supervisor, Sessing Music Services; production designer, Hannah Beachler; set decorators, Eileen Dennehy, Elizabeth Humphrey; costume designer, Stephani Lewis; sound (Dolby Digital), Jim Emswiller; supervising sound editor, Gary Megrigian; re-recording mixers, Marc Fishman, Brad Sherman; visual effects supervisor, Jason Piccioni; visual effects, FuseFX; associate producer, Phillip Dawe; assistant director, Richard Graves; second unit  director, Jason Piccioni; second unit camera, Michael Kohnhorst; casting, Nancy Nayor.

With: Addison Timlin, Travis Tope, Spencer Treat Clark, Veronica Cartwright, Gary Cole, Edward Herrmann, Joshua Leonard, Denis O'Hare, Anthony Anderson, Andy Abele, Ed Lauter, Wes Chatham.

More Film

  • Cuba Gooding Jr

    Cuba Gooding Jr. Sued for Allegedly Pinching Nightclub Server

    A Tao nightclub server who alleges that Cuba Gooding Jr., pinched her rear-end last year has sued the Oscar-winning actor for sexual battery. Natasha Ashworth had previously come forward to New York law enforcement, though her name had not been released publicly. Gooding was indicted last week on four misdemeanor counts, including two counts stemming [...]

  • Taika Waititi Natalie Portman SDCC 2019

    Natalie Portman Weighs in on 'Thor: Love and Thunder's' Possible Breast Cancer Storyline

    Natalie Portman doesn’t know if “Thor: Love and Thunder” will include a breast cancer storyline for her character Jane Foster, but she’s definitely intrigued by the possibility. “It’s just very rare that these kinds of big entertainment films look at more serious, real-life issues,” she told Variety at L.A. Dance Project’s 8th annual fundraising gala [...]

  • Luxbox Closes Sales on Venice Film

    Luxbox Closes Sales on Venice Film 'Sole' to U.S., France (EXCLUSIVE)

    Fiorella Moretti and Hedi Zardi’s Paris-based sales agency Luxbox has closed several territory deals on Carlos Sironi’s “Sole,” which screened in Venice Film Festival’s Orizzonti section and Toronto Film Festival’s Discovery sidebar. The film just won the audience award at Pingyao Intl. Film Festival in China and a Special Jury Mention for the lead actors [...]

  • Puerto Rican singer Ozuna poses during

    Ozuna Joins Vin Diesel in 'Fast & Furious 9'

    Ozuna, one of Latin music’s fastest-rising stars, has signed with UTA for representation. And to kick off the relationship, the agency has landed him a role in “Fast & Furious 9.” He is also in talks to join the film’s soundtrack. Justin Lin, who directed “Fast & Furious 6,” returns to direct the ninth installment [...]

  • Writers vs Agents Packaging War WGA

    Writers Guild Boosting Efforts in Project Development Amid Agency Standoff

    The Writers Guild of America, locked in a six-month standoff with major talent agencies, has announced that it’s boosting efforts at gathering TV, streaming and film project development data to help members find new employment opportunities. The WGA made the disclosure in a message to members on Monday. The guild directed its 15,000 members to fire [...]

  • Fernando Meirelles The Two Popes

    AFI Fest Adds 'The Two Popes,' 'Aeronauts,' Alan Pakula Tribute

    The American Film Institute has added “The Two Popes” and “The Aeronauts” as galas during the upcoming AFI Fest along with a tribute to the late director Alan Pakula. AFI had previously announced that the romantic drama “Queen & Slim” would launch the 33rd annual festival on Nov. 14 and close with the world premiere [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content