Movie Review: The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014)

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One of the big reasons horror fans are always so pissed off about remakes is that Hollywood oftentimes chooses beloved classics to give the treatment to, the sorts of movies that really don’t need to be changed, modified or updated in any way.

And then, every once in a while, a movie is remade that could actually benefit from a remake.

Released in 1976, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is far from a classic, even if it’s become somewhat of a cult classic. Only recently put onto DVD/Blu-ray by Scream Factory, for the very first time, Charles B. Pierce’s original is for the most part a bore, highlighted by a few fairly creepy sequences of the masked slasher stalking and brutally slaying his victims.

Needless to say, The Town That Dreaded Sundown was as ripe for a remake as any horror movie from the past, and one has just arrived on VOD outlets. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and produced by American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy, 2014’s remake puts a meta twist on the 1976 version, set in a world where the original film exists and is acknowledged.

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Taking place over the course of the last few months of 2013, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is set in the small town of Texarkana, the site of the real-life murders that inspired Pierce’s original. After a revival screening of the film, Jami and her boyfriend are attacked by a copycat killer wearing the same mask as the one in the movie, setting off a chain of events that once again makes the residents of Texarkana afraid of darkness.

On paper, this approach to the proceedings admittedly sounds a bit dated, missing the post-Scream, ‘everything is meta’ boat by a good two decades. And indeed one could argue that there’s nothing all that original about this remake’s concept, as countless horror films over the years have used that Scream inspiration as a launching point.

Nevertheless, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is one of the freshest breaths of air that I’ve experienced as a horror fan this year, and its arrival couldn’t possibly have been better timed. While paranormal-mania is currently dominating the genre’s landscape, Murphy and company have boldly harkened back to the ‘whodunit?’ slasher era with this one, and the resulting product is one of the smartest horror remakes of them all.

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Though it improves upon the original in almost every way, one of the most notable aspects of The Town That Dreaded Sundown 2014 is that there’s actually a central character, something that was sorely missing in 1976. Whereas the original introduced a slew of characters that you never really got to know, the remake’s Jami (Addison Timlin) is a character you genuinely care about, which helps to make the film engaging even when the masked slasher isn’t on screen.

On a similar note, one of the biggest mistakes the original film made was that it was told from the perspective of the cops, rather than the residents of Texarkana. By flipping the script, the remake allows for us to see the impact the killings, and the 1976 film, had/have on the town’s residents, which is much more interesting than watching a bunch of cops pursue a killer. All the different characters – including the son of the original film’s director – bring the small town to life in a way that the original didn’t.

But let’s not spend this whole review comparing remake to original, because The Town That Dreaded Sundown 2014 is very much its own movie, one that pays tribute to the original while at the same time blazing its own path. In fact, it’s in many ways more of a sequel than it is a remake, and the well-executed meta approach – though it’s been done before – goes a long way in making it feel like a fresh experience, as opposed to a regurgitated one.

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The visual style is one of the greatest contributors to this remake’s excellence, and the atmosphere Gomez-Rejon (American Horror Story) brings to the clever script is what really makes it shine. From the lighting to the cinematography, Town That Dreaded Sundown is one of the best looking horror films in years, visually rich with personality and impending dread. The film even manages to have an almost otherworldly period piece vibe, despite being set in the present, which reminds of a time when horror movies weren’t dominated by technology and cell phones.

Stylish, brutal and smart (without overdoing the meta aspect), The Town That Dreaded Sundown is the rare remake that’s far better than the film it’s a remake of. Sure, it drags a little at times (even at only 80 minutes long) and the ending will likely make you wish a different direction was taken, but it’s the sort of remake that justifies the existence of all remakes, building a whole new world around the original film, rather than trying to recreate it.

Though there are plenty of amateur filmmakers churning out endless knockoffs of their favorite slasher films, the body count sub-genre has for the most part been on the sidelines in recent years, and the masked killers of the 80s all but replaced by things like ghosts, vampires and zombies. Town That Dreaded Sundown ’14 effectively pulls one of the nails out of that coffin, shattering the monotony of the genre’s recent output with a bloody slasher flick that hits all the right notes.

Craving the return of masked killers and brutal body counts? This remake is for you.

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