The Town That Dreaded Remakes (2014)
Dir. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Starring Addison Timlin Travis Tope, Spencer Treat Clark, Ed Lauter, Veronica Cartwright, Gary Cole, Anthony Anderson, Denis O’Hare
Some things just won’t stay dead. Disco. Hindus. Maxi-dresses. Star Trek. Anything laid to rest in an ancient Indian burial ground. The presidential aspirations of Rick Santorum. And of course, intellectual properties from the 70’s and 80’s with even a hint of name recognition among the lucrative 18-34 white urban male demographic. This last category has a particularly insidious method of reincarnation, and one with which you are no doubt already all too familiar. I speak, of course, of the dreaded postmodernist reimagining. First they came for NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, and I did not speak out because by that point, the franchise really needed to be put to bed anyway. Then they came for Fat Albert, and I did not speak out because really, who gives a fuck about that. Then they came for HELLRAISER, and I had to admit that they had discovered a legitimately novel way to humiliate that series further even than part VII had been able to. And now they’ve come for THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, and by this time there were no franchises left to speak up.
Yes, I’m tired of postmodernism too. In fact, I’m beyond tired. I mean, I’m fuckin’ done with it, man. Every time some big expensive movie comes out that spends most of Earth’s money on some half-imagined framework for self-referential bullshit hoping to leech off the real deal with some sycophantic in-jokes, I keep thinking “this is gonna be it, this is gonna be the one that sinks it.” I mean, how much further can the culture go up its own ass? Surely there’s some intrinsic physical limit, beyond which the accumulated mass of all the lazy metatextual clutter will just collapse in on a black hole of its own narcissism. Right? I mean, fuck, postmodernism is almost older than modernism by this point. Are we really going to accept a society which spends longer critiquing and deconstructing and self-indulgently commenting on art than actually making new art? Is this how civilization ends, when we forget how to actually create new ideas and just build an ever-more-cluttered perpetual motion machine of masturbatory pseudo-intellectual claptrap?
Anyway, my point is that THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (2014) is actually pretty good. Not really because of its callow faux-critical meta-references, but definitely in spite of them. The meta-ness of it all doesn’t actually turn out to be all that important, because fundamentally this is just a nicely-made shiny modern slasher which just lifts a few too many specifics from another source to get away with just calling itself merely derivative. Openly acknowledging its daylight highway robbery of an older movie’s best moments and iconography is just a self-conscious coward’s way of following in the venerable horror movie tradition of ripping off other movies and simply adding your own twist, but I forgive it because its somewhat cumbersome desire for an overbuilt meta-narrative is actually pretty reflective of the movie as a whole. For better or worse, this is a agreeably ambitious film debut from venerable second-unit director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (2nd-unit on BABEL, STATE OF PLAY and ARGO, director of many American Horror Story episodes) which is intent on throwing absolutely every trick in the book at you. One of those tricks happens to be postmodernism, but if that starts to annoy you, you’ve got every other trick in the book to entertain you in the meantime.
The movie announces its intentions with a long, show-offy TOUCH OF EVIL take, where the camera wanders inquisitively through a crowd of drive-in moviegoers who are watching the annual Halloween showing of Charles B. Pierce’s original 1976 THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, something of a tradition in the titular town itself. Texarkana (which straddles the border between Texas and Arkansas) has been free of Phantom menaces since 1946, and has happily contented itself with normal meth-fueled desperate redneck murders (at approximately 3 times the national average) which people seem to accept as normal and wholesome. They’ve made peace with their notorious past as both the site of the infamous Phantom Murders of the mid 40’s and their popular depiction in the beloved proto-slasher film from ‘76. But someone out there isn’t happy with this state of equilibrium, and sets out to re-create the Texarkana Moonlight Murders with a few modern twists. The first target is perky young high school senior Jami (Addison Timlin, ODD THOMAS, but most noted as the recipient of the prestigious national award for “most millennial name that modern science has yet been able to devise”) and her handsome jock boyfriend Corey (Spencer Treat Clark, veteran of the LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT REMAKE). They’ve left the movie early and headed out in their car to makeout point, which is a normal thing that modern couples would do, when suddenly -- what the fuck, this can’t be happening -- it’s the Phantom! The burlap-masked maniac murders (and rapes?) Corey, but lets Jami go with a message: "This is for Mary. Make them remember."
|Speaking of making them remember, remember the last time you saw this logo? It was 1999. THE TOWN THAT DREADED REMAKES is actually their flagship re-launch film.|
Jami makes it back home alive to her grandmother (Veronica Cartwright, ALIEN, CANDYMAN 2), but can’t let things go. Before long, she and a suspiciously helpful stranger (Travis Tope, the upcoming INDEPENDENCE DAY SEQUEL!!) are investigating the resurgent crime wave along with the help of local police played by Joshua Leonard (THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT), Ed Lauter (MAGIC, THE LOST, THE ARTIST in his penultimate film) and Gary Cole (TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA [“man chased by Richard Chance," uncredited], OFFICE SPACE) and a visiting Texas Ranger played by Anthony Anderson (THE DEPARTED, KANGAROO JACK). That’s right, this cast has Veronica Cartwright, Ed Lauter, Joshua Leonard, Gary Cole, and Anthony Anderson, and I haven’t even mentioned yet that venerable character actors Edward Herrmann (NIXON, THE CAT’S MEOW, THE PAPER CHASE) and Denis O’Hare (MILK, EDGE OF DARKNESS, CHANGELING) appear as possible suspects. Holy shit, that’s a dream cast of distinguished b-movie players. Basically every adult role in this movie is played by a profoundly overqualified character actor. Almost none of the roles here require any particular acting prowess, but someone was smart enough to get that cast anyway. That’s hustle, right there.
Anyway, while most of the cast sits around without much to do (Anderson’s sheriff character actually takes some time to watch an old VHS copy of the original TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN!), Jami starts to put together a list of suspects, all of whom relate in some way either to the original murders, or the original movie. Meanwhile, the phantom killer continues to strike in a series of splendidly orchestrated kill scenes, many of which are elegant riffs on scenes from said movie. So we’ve got a fictional meta movie, set in the “real” world, which acknowledges the existence of the original fictionalized movie and also the original real-world murders which were fictionalized by both movies. That’s some ripe, rich, overthinking, there. It’s playful in a kind of predictable way for this kind of thing, but there is a certain cheerful cleverness there, which is helped by a pretty light touch which doesn’t underscore how ridiculous all this is. You’re allowed to have fun with the concept, but the movie itself is taking it pretty seriously, for the most part. Even when the murder mystery’s twists and turns brings them to the point of interviewing the fictional son of real director Pierce (O’Hare) for information about a fictional suspect for the real murders, the movie plays it straight, as if this was a normal exposition scene that would happen in a slasher like this.
Hence, the emphasis is really on the slasher part of its meta-slasher pedigree. And that actually ends up being fine, because it’s a much better actual slasher than it is a postmodernist deconstruction. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s actually one of the best-made slashers I’ve seen in a good while. The movie never quite matches the technical hustle of its assured opening shot, but it’s nonetheless quite an impressive production all the way through, from its handsome cinematography by Michael Goi (prolific Z-movie and TV DP, including 40 credited turns on American Horror Story) to its smartly-constructed kill scenes, to it’s sharp editing and moody score. Gomez-Rejon and co. just seem to get the internal mechanics of slashers in a way which is surprisingly rare in modern times. It’s not just that the film has an elegant, almost Spielbergian sense of cinematic grammar, it’s that this is a rare modern slasher that understands the thrill is in the chase, not just the kill.
I love a gory death scene as much as anyone, but the slasher genre slowly ate itself alive during the 80’s as one-upmanship on imaginative gimmicks replaced actual suspense as the raison d'etre for the genre. With those gimmicks came a focus on the money shot, with all that entails -- but in doing so, the art of building up to those moments got shuffled to the background. And of course, that’s where the actual terror lies; once the stabbing starts, there’s no conflict anymore, you’re simply left with grim spectacle. But the chase -- the chase has the ability to actually get your heart pumping. Gomez-Rejon seems determined to reclaim that nightmarish sense of pursuit. The movie excels at crafting top-notch stalking and fleeing sequences in various colorful milieus, from a moonlit cornfield which turns into a disorienting maze, to a junkyard of iconic 50’s detritus, the latter of which also conveys a subtle meta-joke about the recycled plotline.
Gomez-Rejon even goes out of his way to concoct endearing victims --the exact opposite route most slashers take, but crucial to cultivating actual suspense. Even totally disposable characters who materialize just in time for their demise (for example, the young couple who are murdered moments after fucking each others’ brains out at a local motel) are given a few moments to humanize their characters beyond the stereotypical meat wagon conceit. It doesn’t take much; not even any dialogue, sometimes. Just a moment or two of earnest human vulnerability, and suddenly we’re rooting for them to get away, rather than waiting like disinterested scavengers to see the lurid details or their demise. I mean, it’s not exactly high praise to say that a horror movie actually comprehends the basic mechanics of suspense, but these days it seems like a mildly revolutionary concept in this genre, especially for an explicitly postmodern attempt.
Its strong focus on classically structured stalking and slashing sequences manages to keep everything pretty grounded and earnest, despite the trapping that make it seem suspiciously like an attempt at a millennial answer to SCREAM.* Or at least, it does riiiiiight up to the end when it kinda maybe ruins things with a ridiculous reveal of the killer that might as well have come from a SCREAM sequel. The original TOWN THAT DREADED SUNSHINE, for all its eccentric missteps, knew that the whole reason anyone even cared about any of this is that a mystery killer is always more interesting than some prattling red herring who wants to tell you his life story. The remake can’t resist trying to come up with some outlandish twist to justify the whodunit angle it drapes the lank vestiges of a plot upon, and hence suffers in comparison. I’ll warrant the explanation is respectably outlandish, but while it might succeed in surprising you, it’s way too silly to really stick with you or offer a satisfying conclusion to what up until this point has been a pretty sincere effort.**
Even so, on average this one is still way ahead of the competition. I’ll forgive its transgressions as unavoidable overreach resulting from an excess of ambition, which isn’t always a bad thing. I’m not really convinced that the meta elements add anything meaningful or have anything especially interesting to say about the medium or our strange collective obsession with dramatizing real-life murders in a schlocky genre format. Maybe there’s a meta-horror remake which could be made that explores that stuff, but this ain’t it. No problem, though, because at least it adds a mildly amusing little wrinkle to what is otherwise an assured and highly successful reminder that modern slashers needn’t be either grueling downers or smarmy pastiches. And that’s my final word on the subject. At least, ‘til I come back and do another version of this review years later, which obsessively references the original review without really commenting on it in any kind of meaningful way. Look, postmodernism may be the last refuge of the scoundrel, but someday I’m gonna be out of ideas, too.
*Interestingly enough, the remake also appears to take place in a world where THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (1976) is the only slasher movie ever made -- otherwise they’d have no choice but to admit the ending is (spoiler) cribbed straight from SCREAM. All the characters are super aware of the 1976 movie, but seem to have a total ignorance about any other slasher movie, and the very existence of the slasher genre in general.
**Still, the focus on the killer’s identity does result in one charming quirk. From his first appearance, we can see that the “Phantom” is a white male with striking blue eyes. You’d think that would be a useful clue until you gradually realize that every single possible suspect character ALSO has blue eyes. Man, is this town filled with Swedes or what?
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|Timilin and Cartwright discuss her college plans. It's a little iffy because they kind of acknowledge the (spoiler, male) killer, but I think we can let it slide.|