Holy Trombone! The Town that Dreaded Sundown sequel cum remake is actually pretty good. Said with such surprise as multiplexes are presently lousy with unnecessary remakes and reboots of horror classics that just don’t cut the mustard nor have any inkling or understanding of what may have made the originals so successful. For every successful re imagining such as the 2012 Elijah Wood starring Maniac, there are countless lame, pointless films whose only raison d’etre for being made is that the filmmakers could. Thankfully, The Town That Dreaded Sundown 2014, while not perfect, is not one of them.
TTTDS ’14 is a strange hybrid in that it both loosely retells the events of the original film of the same name and furthers the story. Hence, it’s both a little bit country and a little bit rock n’ roll. Of course, the story stems from the real-life 1946 “Texarkana Moonlight Murders” that claimed the lives of five people, terrorized a small town, and to this day remains unsolved. And as we noted in our review of the original, the accuracy of the retelling of the actual events in the 1976 film have been criticized for being dubious at best.
The film begins on Halloween night 2013. Sixty-five years later, and the small town of Texarkana is still coping with the original “Phantom” killer murder spree. This is a world where the original TTTDS film exists, and indeed the film is shown repeatedly in Texarkana, much like a latter day Rocky Horror Picture Show. It is at one such Halloween drive-in showing that we meet our plucky heroine Jami, played by the uber-likable Addison Timlin. Jami and her date leave the showing early to park in a secluded grove for a little pre-marital fornication. Quicker than a 17 –year old schoolboy on a first date, a familiar burlap-sacked figure enters the frame. He demands Jami and her boyfriend exit the vehicle and the killing spree begins anew. Jami is left alive with the orders to “Make them remember.” Is it a copycat or has the original Phantom killer returned to finish what he started over half a century ago?
What’s most interesting about this version is how it incorporates and intersperses footage from the original film to mirror the latter-day Texarkana terror. There are also some familiar elements that return such as a Texas Ranger charging in to spearhead the investigation (although Anthony Anderson is certainly no Ben Johnson.) The famous trombone kill is also recreated, albeit much less successfully than in the first. The kills in general are gorier and more brutal than in the predecessor, including one juicy bit where the Phantom uses the severed head of one of his victims, a returning soldier, to break the window of the motel room where the unfortunate Leatherneck’s girlfriend is waiting. We are also treated to shinbones breaking through flesh, bullets through eyes, throat slits and stabbings aplenty, and a nice bit of train-track mutilation.
As the spree continues, Jami’s investigation leads her to the son of original Town director Charles B. Pierce, Charles B. Pierce Jr., played by Denis O’ Hare of American Horror Story fame. Jr. is an eccentric individual who lives off the grid in a boat docked in a field in the middle of nowhere. His domicile is filled with original TTDS memorabilia including posters, commemorative mugs and the actual sack worn by the original actor in the original film, who remember, is not the original killer. Like everybody else, Jr. has his own theories as to who the current Phantom may be and why the murders have begun again.
Unlike the 1976 film, this one requires a dénouement, and the revelation of who’s hiding under the sack as well as the motive is all a bit Scooby-Doo. The film eschews the somewhat portentous voiceover and quasi-documentary, Cinéma vérité feel of the original for a more traditional structure. In doing so, it also jettisons much of the original’s creepy, deserted Hicksville atmosphere. Nonetheless, TTTDS ’14 is also much less campy and more brutal than the original. Still, it’s the film’s meta-like fiction blurring with reality blurring with fiction as well as the filmmaker’s obvious reverence for the original which make this remake/update a winner.
*** (out of five)