04th Nov2014

Mayhem 2014: ‘The Town That Dreaded Sundown’ Review

by Dan Woolstencroft

Stars: Addison Timlin, Veronica Cartwright, Anthony Anderson, Travis Tope, Joshua Leonard, Andy Abele, Gary Cole, Edward Herrmann, Ed Lauter, Arabella Field, Denis O’Hare, Spencer Treat Clark, Wes Chatham, Morganna May, Jaren Mitchell | Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Earl E. Smith | Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Town-that-Dreaded-cast

In 1946, the American town of Texarkana was rocked by a series of murders. Dubbed “The Moonlight Murders” by the press, these were real, tragic events that scarred the town. In 1976, Charles B. Pierce directed The Town That Dreaded Sundown, a film “based on true events” depicting the events of the killing spree thirty years earlier. There’s an ongoing tradition in Texarkana to show a drive-in screening of the film on Halloween every year.

And now in 2014, American Horror Story‘s Alfonso Gomez-Rejon has created a new version of Town that finds itself with a unique premise. Acknowledging that both the 1946 murders took place, and that the 1976 film was released, 2014′s The Town That Dreaded Sundown sounds like a compelling setting for an updated meta-slasher.

There are hints, early on, that the film might explore the implications of this scenario: how would prominent townsfolk – people who were initially appalled by the idea of the 1976 film – react to this happening over again? How does the modern press react and report on such a dramatic turn of events? Is it possible to sympathetically and responsibly retread old ground without opening sensitive old wounds?

But as the film goes on, it becomes apparent that the intriguing circumstance is nothing more than a pretence for another run of the mill, excessively violent, and ultimately unsatisfying slasher movie. It’s a hammy, clunky script with actors who drone and mumble their way through line readings without any trace of real emotion, with a couple of exceptions. What could have been a fascinating meta take on slasher movies, while at the same time exploring the weight of previous events on a quiet little town, actually ends up retreading all the usual slasher tropes without even knowingly and cheekily acknowledging what is going on.

The direction is at times awkwardly stylised, Gomez-Rejon being a fan of extreme close-up foreground reaction shots juxtaposed with conversations unfolding in the background. It’s an overused shot, and looks remarkably cheap every time it happens. There are occasions where the setting provides some attractive composition, but it can’t draw attention away from how tired everything else feels. The film also has a weird incongruous 70s aesthetic in the way its characters dress and the appearance of buildings. Given its modern setting, it’s jarring when characters are dressed more to resemble the period of the original film.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014) relies on cheap jump scares and excessively tasteless kills in the clichèd slasher style to leave its mark. The two notable performances are from long time favourite of mine Gary Cole, and the always delightful Denis O’Hare who gets one glorious film-stealing scene which might as well be in an entirely different film. While on the subject of O’Hare, it’s here that things wander off into uncomfortable meta territory, casting O’Hare as the slightly bonkers son of the 1976 film’s director. There’s a growing sense of discomfort as the film plays out, knowing that these were real events, and seeing their lives effectively subverted for a cheap thrill.

There’s no merit to 2014′s The Town That Dreaded Sundown. It feels like cheap exploitation trash dressed up as something more intelligent or significant.

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