Kudos to Vic at Vic’s Movie Den for informing me about this retro-1970’s slasher horror from indie director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) and writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Vic’s recent blog post got me interested in this independent film, which is both a remake and sequel to the original 1976 film by director Charles B. Pierce and screenwriter Earl E. Smith. In the process of paying homage to the original “Town That Dreaded Sundown,” the 2014 movie draws on classic 1970s slasher tropes to tell the story of the return of its villain, the Phantom Killer (otherwise known as Baghead). He terrorizes Texarkana a second time, sixty-five years after his first reign of terror in the rural border town, where he committed a series of gruesome killings known as the “midnight murders.”
Gomez-Rejon, a graduate of both NYU’s and AFI’s film schools, manages to import the style of 1970s slasher film into a 21st Century production without dragging in the worst of the cliched baggage that usually comes with that decade’s subgenre offerings. One of the ways he and Aguirre-Sacasa do this is by developing the lead character more than one would expect. He does this in part by bringing in “fresh blood” to the production. Addison Timlin (who plays Stormy Llewellyn in 2013’s “Odd Thomas”) plays Jami, the lead character. An attractive but bookish high school senior who plans to leave Texas after graduation to study creative writing at university, she is forced to rethink her plans after attending Texarkana’s annual Halloween showing of “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” at a local drive-in.
Jami does not like the film, but is thrilled to have been asked out on a date by Corey (Spencer Treat Clark), a football player at her high school. She would prefer to be alone with Corey, so the couple leaves in the middle of the show, to the delight of Reverend Cartwright (Edward Herrmann), a local preacher who is there to protest against the “ungodly” movie being shown. Little does Cartwright know that Corey is taking her to a lovers’ lane in a nearby park.
The couple starts to “make out” in Corey’s parked car. Just as Corey’s hand starts sliding up her thigh, Jami notices a hooded figure watching them from the woods. It is Baghead, who proceeds to bludgeon Corey to death. Baghead makes Jami turn her back while he does the gruesome deed, ordering her not to watch. She cannot help but turn around to look, however, screaming as Baghead repeatedly stabs Corey. She runs away when Baghead tries to attack her; he chases her through the woods. It seems as if Baghead is going to kill Jami also. However, he just roughs her up after he catches her. He lets her live so that she can deliver a message to Texarkana: “This is for Mary. Make them remember!”
The rest of the film involves Jami’s efforts to figure out the identity of the killer, with or without the assistance of the local police and the Texas Rangers, as the body count continues to rise (following the sequence of the original murders in style). She does a lot of research on the original murders (starting with the identity of “Mary”), which leads her to meet Nick (Travis Tope), who works at the City Hall records archive. Nick assists with her research and eventually becomes Jami’s new love interest. One of the coolest things about this second-act story arc is that it leads to the introduction of Charles Pierce Jr. (Denis O’Hare), the son of the director of the original film. Pierce has a theory, based on his father’s pre-production research, about the identities of the original and current murderers. A gory final kill that ended the first string of murders might be the key to solving the current ones.
This film, which premiered at the 2014 Fantastic Fest, is worth a watch for the way that it recaptures the spirit of 1970s horror films while providing a fresh look at the slasher subgenre that was so popular during that decade. Gomez-Rejon includes all of the major tropes (such as death as punishment for having sex) while providing a much more substantial main character (played well by Timlin) and much higher production value. Particularly good are the special effects, such as those used when Jami does her research in the record archives (for example, the words she is reading appear to scroll across her eyes). I also like the way the film pays homage to the original Pierce film (including using original footage, but in a way that is worked into the storyline of the 2014 film). Finally, “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” extends the story of the original by providing for the return of Baghead in contemporary Texarkana. Since the subgenre usually demands a plot twist at the end, the film provides one, but one that is believable and not obvious.