“Even with all the violence and gruesomeness occurring, The Town That Dreaded Sundown still slows down to adhere to the story’s history, even expanding beyond it in subjective realms that we truly question to be true or not.”
The original 1976 The Town That Dreaded Sundown ranks as one of my favorite crime-dramas and horror films for its brilliant use of docudrama-style narration and editing, as well as its completely terrifying portrayal of an innocent town rocked by inconsistent and senseless murders, sending residents into a panic. In addition, the film combines my obscure interest of murders and murderers and fuels them into a film that works well under many different genres. The film profiled the mysterious murders by someone known only as “The Phantom Killer,” who, for three solid months in 1946, terrorized the town of Texarkana, right on the border of Texas and Arkansas, committing gruesome murders or vicious attacks on the backroads of “lovers lanes.” To this day, “The Phantom’s” identity has never been confirmed and many believed that he walked the streets of Texarkana until his assumed death.
The new, 2014 film bearing the same name is less a remake or a reboot of the original cult film but more a strange, meta-sequel, concerning present-day Texarkana, a distinctly southern town that still has the blemish of The Phantom clear in its history. Once a year, on Halloween, the town shows the original 1976 film at a drive-in theater, only this year the showing incites another masked assailant, who is going around committing gruesome murders eerily similar to those decade ago. A high school-age girl named Jami (Addison Timlin) is the first to encounter the second Phantom Killer after witnessing her boyfriend being brutally murdered by him in a woodsy area on Halloween night. Now, Jami and another close friend attempt to track down the history of the original Phantom Killer, right down to the son of Charles B. Pierce, the director of the original Town That Dreaded Sundown, in order to optimistically garner answers about the current Phantom Killer.
There are two issues with The Town That Dreaded Sundown, both relatively minor in the broad spectrum, but worth mentioning as they are readily apparent. For starters, the film immediately loses the impact brought on by its predecessor because, in 1976, when the film was made, it was pragmatic to think that the man who committed the murders in 1946 would still be alive today, walking the streets of Texarkana. With that in mind, the film was an effective piece of work, resurrecting the ideas about the killer that were chilling to recall. The new The Town That Dreaded Sundown obviously doesn’t bear that same resonance, and, in addition, has an issue with the way it wants to show its town. The lingo, the look, and the feel of Texarkana in this particular film are all evidently modern, but the vehicles used could all be dated back to the seventies and beyond. Either Texarkana is a down that doesn’t really age (which could very well be the case) or the true time period wasn’t taken into full consideration.
Other than that, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a surprisingly effective sequel, informative enough to be considered a worthy piece of analysis into The Phantom Killer, dark and haunting enough to live up to the standard set forth by its predecessors, and not meta or self-referential enough to be a distraction or an annoyance. The film, like the 1976 film, understands its story and takes it seriously, and has no issue making the film dark and commendably frightening. Compare the murder scenes in this film to the murder scenes that took place in the original film, both of which made effective by the lack of music and their emphasis on realism. This particular film has no quibbles about making its murder sequences violent and horrifying, with one particular sequence at a hotel being entirely effective thanks to how much it wants to show and how gruesome it wants to be.
Even with all the violence and gruesomeness occurring, The Town That Dreaded Sundown still slows down to adhere to the story’s history, even expanding beyond it in subjective realms that we truly question to be true or not. Scenes like the ones featuring a long conversation with Pierce’s son, who is obsessive about letting the truth be known about The Phantom Killer, leave a little bit of ambiguity to a story already so peculiar and odd that we wonder if what is being examined has any substance to it outside of the screenplay.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon made probably the best thing that could’ve resulted from a continuation to the 1976 film’s story, and, through dark direction and an uncompromising notion to depict brutality and horror in its most chilling sense, makes The Town That Dreaded Sundown a thoroughly enjoyable and enticing affair.