In 1946 around Texarkana, a town on the border of Texas and Arkansas, a crime wave occurred, killings committed by an unknown figure simply referred to as the Phantom Killer. The case was never officially solved, and has led to much speculation and theorising. In 1976, an exploitation movie about the case was made by local filmmaker Charles B. Pierce called The Town that Dreaded Sundown. A controversial release, but a significant one, as not only was it a relative success as a film, but it was an early precursor to the slasher genre two years before Halloween. Now we have a new version, although it would be wrong to call this a straight remake, as it takes a smarter route. Not only is it not a straight retelling of the original story, but the ‘70s film is part of the plot…
Halloween night 2013. While many are at a screening of The Town that Dreaded Sundown, Jami (Addison Timlin) and her boyfriend Corey (Spencer Treat Clark) are attacked by someone dressed as the Phantom killer. Jami escapes with her life, but as killings continue it seems that someone is re-enacting all of the original Midnight Murders. As the investigation, lead by Texas Ranger “Lone Wolf” Morales (Anthony Anderson), makes little headway, Jami starts investigating on her own, partially to understand why she was spared that night. What she begins to find out is that the original film may hold a clue to the new Phantom’s motives, specifically a detail of the original crimes it didn’t include.
“Remake” seems like the wrong word here, so does “sequel”; this film isn’t one that’s easy to pigeonhole into a particular format. It’s a smart move, rather than just a straight retelling, having this modern day answer, as it allows the film to be about a bit more. It has in common with the original a good focus in showing the greater overall effect that the killings are having on the town, namely the reactions of fear. It allows for neat satire, how in an odd way the local church is happy about the situation, as it means more people are turning to God. But having this copycat format allows the film to partially be about the history of these sorts of events. For the characters, the fact that the original killings happened so long ago means that there’s immediately a distancing effect, many kind of look on the events and the film without even thinking that those were real people that died. It’s only when the events become so immediate that they think of it in terms of the horrendous acts that they were. The original film was part of that; while it’s discussed and homaged a lot, the new version does subtly point out that it basically was a grubby little grindhouse title cashing in on these events.
So there’s a lot more food for thought in this than the average horror reboot but that in no way gets in the way of its credentials as a thriller. This manages to blend two styles well, the sort of gritty, slightly grubby seventies way of doing things, with modern, more slick filmmaking. There are some great set pieces, which manage to update several scenes from the original well, including the infamous trombone murder. It balances points about slasher movies while definitely keeping its own sense of identity; the Phantom killer is still unique amongst slasher villains for his willingness to use a gun. It borrows a few good lessons from the likes of Scream, especially the more meta-story approach but wisely none of Scream’s pretensions. There’s a strong mystery in the film to be solved, with quite a solid conclusion including more than a few surprises. This even updates an old staple of slasher films in having a moment that you’re not sure is progressively breaking new ground or somewhat exploitative, in this case a new twist on the old cliché of lovers stalked by the killer.
This film isn’t a miraculous new reinvigoration of the slasher movie, but it’s a very solid entry to the genre that manages to show there’s still some life in it. It’s shocking, grim, gory, but manages to stay clear of the outright misanthropy of some “torture porn” flicks; this is definitely out to shock and scare you, not disgust you. If only more reboots of old horror films had this much genuine thought and care put into them. Incidentally, the original film, after spending a long time in limbo, is finally getting a home video release too, a week after this one comes out, so if you’re in the mood, you can do a compare & contrast. Recommended.