'The Town That Dreaded Sundown': London Review

Courtesy of Orion Pictures
Too much phantom, not enough menace

This ambitious meta-horror reboot from the team behind 'Glee' and 'American Horror Story' runs out of bite midway through

This postmodern remake of the cultish 1976 serial killer movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown comes from the pedigreed tag team of producer Ryan Murphy, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and screenwriter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, whose shared TV credits include Glee and American Horror Story. All heavyweight talents, and yet their take on this material feels timid and muddled. Fresh from its U.K. premiere at the London Film Festival, the film opens theatrically in the U.S. this week.

Directed by low-budget indie pioneer Charles B. Pierce, the original film was loosely inspired by a real killing spree on the Texas-Arkansas border in 1946 by a man in a sackcloth mask. Dubbed the "Phantom Killer," he was never caught. A grungy and ragged affair, The Town That Dreaded Sundown nonetheless helped establish the grimy, influential aesthetic of 1970s slasher classics like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. For the last decade, it has been ritually screened at a Texarkana drive-in cinema every Halloween.

Opening with an impressive extended tracking shot that glides around one of these Halloween screenings, Gomez-Rejon's self-referential reboot inhabits a world where the first movie took place and still haunts Texarkana, which appears to be stranded in a 1970s time warp. Even the opening credits are laced with knowingly retro homages, including a nod to Orion Pictures, the long-dormant MGM offshoot that distributed the original film and has been reactivated for this current release.

When fresh-faced young sweethearts Jami (Addison Timlin) and Corey (Spencer Treat Clark) leave the drive-in for a smooch in a secluded country lane, they encounter a masked maniac dressed like the Phantom. Corey is brutally slaughtered but Jami escapes with her life. This traumatic experience leads her to obsess over the original murders, with a view to unearthing the Phantom's real identity. Meanwhile the new killer is on the prowl again, stalking Jami as the bodies begin to pile up.

Sprinkled with allusions to the original movie, including character names, in-jokey echoes and even brief snippets of footage spliced into the action, The Town That Dreaded Sundown initially seems to promise a smart deconstruction of horror tropes in the tradition of Wes Craven's Scream series or Drew Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods.  One audacious side plot introduces the son of the first film's director, Charles B. Pierce Jr., as a potential murder suspect. Confusingly, while Denis O’Hare portrays him on screen, the real Pierce Jr. also has a small cameo.

Sadly, these meta-textual elements gradually recede as Gomez-Rejon falls back on the standard slasher manual with all its red herrings, false endings and jolting audio-visual shock tactics. Underdeveloped subplots involving a hypocritical preacher, as well as Jami's tragic family background and fragile mental state, all fizzle out confusingly. With its glossy look, split-screen camera effects and permanent background tingle of dreamy nocturnal tension, The Town That Dreaded Sundown starts to feel less like an arch remix than a minor Brian De Palma movie.

Gomez-Rejon recently admitted he was forced to cut 15 minutes of running time from his movie, including various postmodern gimmicks, which may explain why the closing half-hour is a parade of illogical plot swerves and messy loose ends. Even the final shock twist, when the Phantom is finally unmasked, is laughably unconvincing. Thus an initially promising genre reboot ends up feeling like a major failure of nerve.

Production companies: Blumhouse Productions, Orion Pictures, Ryan Murphy Productions
Starring: Addison Timlin, Spencer Treat Clark, Gary Cole, Ed Lauter, Joshua Leonard, Arabella Field
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Screenwriters: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Earl E. Smith (1976 original)
Producers: Jason Bloom, Ryan Murphy
Cinematographer: Michael Goi    
Editor: Joe Leonard
Production designer: Hannah Beachler
Casting director: Nancy Nayor
Music: Ludwig Göransson    

Rated R, 82 minutes