DIRECTOR Alfonso Gomez-Rejon WRITER Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa; Earl E. Smith STARS Addison Timlin; Veronica Cartwright; Anthony Anderson CINEMA 17 April
Those of us old enough to remember shelves stuffed with racks of VHS horror tapes will think of Charles Pierce’s 1976 slasher The Town That Dreaded Sundown fondly: a sleazy but fun slice of exploitation with a sack-hooded killer that slaughtered teens which pre-empted the slasher boom kick-started by Halloween by a couple of years. Roughly based on a true story, it was a hidden gem to be discovered in the video store boom of the 80s. Now comes the inevitable remake, although here the filmmakers have boxed clever; this is part sequel, part movie-within-a-movie, and for the first half feels incredibly fresh.
Each year the town of Texarkana celebrates the for-real slaughter of its townsfolk in 1946 by showing the original movie at the local drive-in — less dreading sundown, more embracing it. A superb opening long take weaves in and out of cars, people and the screen (evoking pure Brian DePalma) before settling on Jami (Addison Timlin) and her boyfriend, who sneak away from the show to the local lovers lane, and are attacked by a hooded killer. Jami survives, and becomes a local Nancy Drew, determined to uncover the mystery as the body count rises. Is it a copycat? A haunting? Or is Jami, traumatised by her parents’ death, simply imagining the whole thing. Movies working in reality have been done before (Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Scream; Being John Malkovich) but the idea is still pretty original, and works very well here, in no small part due to some creepy set-ups and nasty gore — devotees of the original will be delighted that the trombone murder remains here, and is now even more graphic. There’s a strong subplot that centres on the drugs Jami is taking, and a weirdness to the town that adds to the atmosphere — people dress like it’s the past, no one owns a cellphone — and asks the audience to question what they are seeing.
As the final act comes and the identity of the killer is revealed the good work that takes place in the build-up unravels somewhat, and The Town That Dreaded Sundown becomes more of the standard slasher that the title suggests. It doesn’t quite have the courage to follow all of its ideas, but this is a minor annoyance, and is borne of frustration; there’s an even better film lurking just under the surface here. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon may be a first-time feature director but he cut his teeth on American Horror Story, and it shows: filled with style, superb photography and a very welcome 70s vibe, this is a rarity, a horror reinvention that feels like it has been made with fans in mind and not simply to squeeze dollars from a teenage audience with a formulaic set-up.