The Town That Dreaded Sundown
How recent horror movies like Silent Hill: Revelation and Texas Chainsaw get proper theatrical release defeats me. I know, I know, its predecessors made a lot of money, and I know, studio executives want nothing more than to get an extra bit of green in their pockets. But when films like The Town That Dreaded Sundown come along, I can’t help but come out and say that I get just a little pissy. Do executives believe that audiences are so stupid that they would rather watch the stupid sequel to an already stupid horror movie instead of a intelligently made one?
The horror genre is in a supremely weird state at the moment. Theatrical releases are usually limited to the sequels I angrily mentioned earlier. Sometimes (but rarely) we get a piece of original work, but even then, quality scare fests are hard to come by in the mainstream. Audiences tend to associate “scary” with blood-and-guts or cheap jump-scares, which is maybe why something subtle like Oculus makes nearly $54 million less than cat-at-the-camera garbage like Ouija (which, by the way, is so terrible that I would sincerely rather watch a raccoon dig through, you guessed it, actual garbage). Good horror movies, dare I say it, seem to be found mostly in independent cinema (The Innkeepers, [Rec]). It’s unfair that an entire genre is thriving off hidden gems that few people end up ever seeing.
Now here we have The Town That Dreaded Sundown, perhaps one of the most obscure (and best) indie horror flicks of the 2010s. If that name sounds familiar, then there is a reason. It shares more than a few similarities with the 1976 cult slasher of the same name. Do not be fooled: This is hardly a film you can call a sequel, a reboot, or any other disgusting label given to something that should just be called original. The real town that dreaded sundown, Texarkana, was rocked by a series of unsolved murders in the 1940s, the 1976 film attempting to give it some based-on-a-true-story rawness. This 2014 film, which takes place in 2013, is fully aware of the deaths that plagued the ‘40s, but it also references the 1976 movie that turned the heinous crimes into cinema lure. It is meta, sumptuously photographed, and genuinely thrilling. The fact that The Town That Dreaded Sundown was confined to video-on-demand while Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones collected dust during its proper release, is maddening.
The beginning of the film marks the 67th anniversary of the 1946 killings, with Texarkanan citizens are reminiscing by watching the 1976 film at a crowded drive-in (as I said, this film is meta). Jami (Addison Timlin, in an inviting and immediately likable performance) is on a date with Corey (Spencer Treat Clark), but she can’t seem to pull any romance out of scenery so distracted by graphic murders. As if trying to sign a death wish, they depart, hoping to find some privacy down a secluded country road. I’ll cut to the chase: They are attacked by a masked assailant dressed identically to the antagonist of the 1976 movie. Corey is brutally murdered, but Jami survives the confrontation. Deaths continue, and the killer, as it seems, feels as though his work has been unfinished with Jami still alive.
The directorial debut of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, the man responsible for giving American Horror Story its visual strangeness, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is almost by-the-numbers, but Gomez-Rejon doesn’t allow us to go unconvinced. He provides the film with a purposely cheap look, dramatically lighting the daytime scenes to remind us that they are the few hours of safety in Texarkana, while darkening the night as unrealistically as possible to ensure that the killer can more easily sneak up on us. The film is obviously the work of a maestro close to setting his stylistic goals in cement; if Gomez-Rejon continues on a similarly brainy horror path, he could eventually break into the mainstream he deserves to be in.
With a heavy heart, I must admit that it’s clear to me that the horror genre is going down the pooper. If companies are putting The Babadook, which is already considered to be the best horror film of the decade, in limited release, where are we headed? If talents like Gomez-Rejon keep working, and films like The Town That Dreaded Sundown continue to be made, some of us will be content. But much of the public fawns over the Saw movies, and we need to get out of that sickened mindset. B