The Town That Dreaded Sundown is technically a remake of the 1976 of the same name but it also serves as a sort of “meta-sequel” in which the original film exists based on something that supposedly really happened in the small town of Texarkana, on the Texas-Arkansas border.
65 years on from the “moonlight murders,” the small town is wounded and still haunted by the memory of what happened, with the film being showing at a drive-in theatre every Halloween. During the showing the murders begin all over again , prompting questions over whether it’s a copycat or the original killer somehow returned, with a local troubled high school girl at the centre of the mystery when she survives one of the killer’s attacks.
Unfortunately, in spite of its admirably ambitious and admittedly clever meta set-up – which sees the film with one foot in the past and one in the increasingly self-aware modern horror world – it fails to muster any genuine scares from its premise. Slasher clichés are dragged out one-by-one which works for the first 20 minutes or so as a way to hat tip to the original way of doing things in these types of horror movies – namely the ’76 film upon which it’s based – but quickly grows tiresome.
Its stylishly shot and debut feature director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon clearly has an eye for pleasing aesthetics (he previously worked on producer Ryan Murphy’s TV hit American Horror Story) even in telling such a grisly story but it comes off more as a pretentious wannabe rather than a sincere homage to the original and other B-movie horrors.
Fancy tracking shots and elegantly hazy dream sequences are all well and good but in this case they merely get in the way of doing what the film should be: providing some good old-fashioned slasher movie scares. The on-screen kills themselves, of which there are many, are suitably gruesome in nature but there’s a leering quality to it missing from some of the better meta horrors over the years (namely Wes Craven’s Scream franchise), making for uncomfortable viewing in all the wrong, boringly repetitive ways.
An impressive roster of character actor heavyweights make up the supporting cast, including the wonderfully mercurial Denis O’Hare, the charismatic Gary Cole and late-great Edward Herrmann, and there’s solid work from Adison Timlin as the obligatory/horror staple survival girl lead. But they’re saddled with a film that, for all its ambition and admirable reverence for what’s come before in horror, ends up disappearing inside its own pleased-with-itself knowingness.