Film Review -- The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014)

Film Review — The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014)

I was expecting the usual remake, something with more realistic gore effects and blandly pretty actors than the original, but not as much grit or soul. But this odd meta-sequel surprised me.

To begin, this isn’t a remake at all, which makes the decision to give it the exact same title as the original a bit confusing. It’s a sequel to the 1975 original, but it’s a little more complicated than that. That original is a sort of precursor to the slasher genre, not a great movie, but a very effective thriller about a masked murderer that gives future horror franchises that bank on “unusual kills” a high bar to get over with the trombone scene. But anyway, it’s loosely based on a real series of unsolved murders. The sequel is about those original murders, but also the influence the original film had on the town where they took place (where it’s played every Halloween).

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon does some very interesting things with splicing footage from the original film into sequences in this version. The killer is intentionally paralleling the plot of the first movie to try and illuminate some overlooked fact about the actual murders in the 1940s. This parallelism is the film’s strongest point, a meta-narrative that brings the audience back to familiar locations and situations and builds tension on what you know already happened there (it goes without saying this all works a hell of a lot better if you’ve watched the original recently).

Movies that rely on this kind of meta plot that references a real-world film or series as existing within the world of the film are few and far between, often very interesting, and they unfailingly whimper and die at the box office. Wes Craven did incredible things with the form in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, then simplified the concept until the average audience could grasp it for Scream. The sequel to the Blair Witch Project, Book of Shadows, does it — it’s not so much a sequel to the first film as a sequel to the real-world phenomenon the first film created, the hype and praise and backlash. It’s a criminally underrated film, probably because everyone was expecting more college kids running around blowing snot bubbles in the woods.

So this Town sequel is doomed to obscurity. To enjoy it requires not just knowledge of the original, but a firm grasp of stalker/killer movie tropes. Which is a shame, because, though far from perfect, it’s a damn interesting horror movie. What’s surprising is that it wasn’t made by the usual suspects — you’re expecting someone deeply reverential of slasher flicks, steeped in horror cinema’s past, right? Gomez-Rejon and writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa are probably most well-known for their work on Glee.

That fresh perspective gives us some atypical angles, like a female lead who’s far from a flailing victim, but rather a strong, active participant in trying to solve the original and current murders. She’s played by Addison Timlin, who impressed me with her subtlety and range. There’s also a fun parallel to the original’s superhero Texas Ranger, this time played by a black actor, Anthony Anderson, who subverts the dumb cop stereotype by insisting on taking Timlin’s character seriously. Sadly, one of the film’s biggest flaws, he’s woefully underused and vanishes from the plot before the climax, playing no part in it.

I don’t want to hammer the diversity point too hard, but if you’re just rolling along watching horror movies without thinking about it, it’s easy to overlook how many of them are full of nothing but straight suburban white people. Think about all the haunted house movies we’ve seen in the last ten years. It’s part of what made Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones feel so new (and makes it so annoying that it was marketed as a “latino movie” just because the characters weren’t all white, god forbid we white people watch some movies with people in them that don’t look exactly like us once in a while). So when Town included a scene where two teenage boys drive out to lovers’ lane together and are murdered, without making it special or about them being gay, it stood out. They got butchered the same as any horny teenagers in horror movies get butchered.

Speaking of butchery, if you’re in it for the gore, this movie definitely has some brutal, unflinching kills. It’s not quite Hatchet, but it doesn’t look away when someone catches a bullet in the eye while getting a blowjob.

The cinematography also deserves attention. There are some classic Expressionist low-angles and tilted angles, the kind of thing film noir and early horror films used so effectively. The editing, including the occasional splicing of old footage, is very dynamic, using long, slow shots but jabbing the viewer with fast cuts now and then to emphasize on-screen chaos and fear. There are also some gorgeous crane shots, especially a scene where the killer chases a victim through a field of tall plants, and you can see the trails they’ve left in the plants as they hide and seek.

Unfortunately, the plot doesn’t hold up under all those clever ideas about meta-narrative and cycles of violence. The twist ending is good for one weird moment, but then it amounts to, “Haha bet you didn’t see that coming!” And either you did because it was obvious or you didn’t because it was stupid and didn’t make sense, and possibly a little of both. I wanted this movie to say something a little more forcefully, to have a point that was a little sharper. At one moment, the screen takes on the scratched look of old film and we see a film crew shooting the original movie as a character remembers it. I was hoping maybe the movie would start to deconstruct itself at that point, to start playing with all those weird notions you get when you make a fictional movie about true events that’s a sequel to another movie about those true events. But that never happened, and so it all sort of fizzled.

Still worth a watch, though.