Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon; Screenwriter: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa; Starring: Addison Timlin, Veronica Cartwright, Anthony Anderson, Gary Cole, Joshua Leonard, Ed Lauter; Running time: 86 minutes; Certification: 18
Everyone knows A Nightmare On Elm Street, Friday The 13th, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – including their respective remakes over the last few years. Less known to the general populace is Charles B. Pierce’s 1976 slasher The Town That Dreaded Sundown, in which a hooded killer terrorizes a small town in Arkansas following World War II. Perhaps that’s simply because it’s not as good as such aforementioned classics, but that’s still nothing to stop the perpetual influx of horror remakes that continues to show no signs of slowing down (we have Poltergeist to look forward to next). Regular American Horror Story director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon takes the reigns on this particular re-imagining – and I say re-imagining specifically.
As opposed to a straight-faced remake, Gomez-Rejon’s film is set in a Scream-esque meta universe where the events of the original film actually happened and are not only discussed by the characters, but relate directly to the events of this one. Case in point; we open with a scene in a typical American drive-in. The film playing? The Town That Dreaded Sundown. As new murders begin plaguing the town 65 years after the original killer, whom which the real 1976 film is fictionally based on in this film (confused?), it’s up to the inhabitants – specifically Jami (Addison Timlin) to figure out whether it’s a copycat killer or something else. There’s something actually rather fun and interesting about the approach, setting it apart from some of the more generic and unimaginative remakes we’ve seen lately (A Nightmare On Elm Street). At least it has some kind of stamp on it. Too often it’s all about the studio trying to make money off a name, rather than a director being allowed to do something actually creative. If the original The Town That Dreaded Sundown doesn’t quite match up to its contemporaries, the remake somewhat makes up for it by being more interesting that many of its own.
But interesting isn’t a get out of jail free card; on the opposite hand, it’s not like it’s doing anything else particularly impressive. Lots of blood. Lots of death. Lots of bad acting. The comparisons to Scream are inevitable, which is rather unwelcome as Scream – and, indeed, its sequels – continues to be one of the best examples of meta storytelling, both within the horror genre and cinema as a whole. The whole time we just can’t help but shake the feeling that it did a similar thing but much better – even though it’s not, admittedly, trying to be the same; it doesn’t have the comedic aspect of Wes Craven’s films, nor the piquant pop-culture-strewn dialogue. It wants to be taken seriously, to be a cleverly weaved reinterpreting of a gritty exploitation flick. Only to some extent does it succeed.
Ultimately there’s enough here to keep some slasher fans happy, for a while at least, but barring the few interesting fragments holding it together, it’s generally a pretty forgettable effort. A character being ‘offed’ does little to provoke much of a reaction because the script does little to make us care about them, and it largely fails to be atmospheric – a mortal sin in this genre. If you can’t get either of them right, something else really special has to happen, or there at least has to be some kind of joy in spending time with the film. Instead, this film is a bit of a slog.