The people of Texarkana – two towns with a shared named and a shared border – have known terror before. Sixty-eight years ago a masked killer stalked and murdered five people, wounded a few others and left a community scarred with terror. A dramatized documentary (of sorts) was released in 1976, and now 38 years later the killer has returned. Well, a killer anyway.
Teenagers gather at a drive-in theater watching the town’s annual screening of the ’76 film, but when a young couple cuts out early for some hanky panky they discover a man in a sack cloth mask watching their car from the woods. He attacks leaving Corey (Spencer Treat Clark) dead and Jami (Addison Timlin) traumatized, and soon the town is forced into a new nightmare as the killings continue along a similar path to the ones captured in the film nearly four decades prior.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown is titled like a remake, but it’s actually a sequel that opens in present day with a voice-over informing viewers that what we’re about to see happened in Texarkana one year ago. The characters’ awareness of the original film adds a meta element, but at its core the film is little more than a slickly produced slasher. That’s not a bad thing on its face, but it would have been a lot better if the script tried to be anything other than a retroactively aware and highly generic rehash of events we’ve seen before.
We’re introduced to the town’s ridiculously small population including a half dozen characters designed to be red herrings of varying quality. Unlike the original this film is designed as a mystery as Jami works to discover not only who today’s killer is but also who was responsible for the original murders. She joins with a local researcher named Nick (Travis Tope) and even meets with the son (Denis O’Hare) of the first film’s director, Charles B. Pierce, but their efforts can barely keep pace with the killer’s as he racks up a steady supply of fresh victims.
Those victims vary, but the killings themselves are modeled after the same sequence and details as the original. The gore is far more explicit (and impressive) and some specifics are tweaked – one couple is gay now, although that appears to be news to them, “So, how do we do this?” – but the trombone kill remains. And before you ask, yes, it still looks just as dumb, but beyond that the kills, like every other area of the film, are shot by cinematographer Michael Goi to a higher visual standard than the genre often receives.
The mystery aspect is engaging enough as the characters and supporting cast (Gary Cole, Edward Herrmann, Veronica Cartwright, Ed Lauter) each hold possibility, but those of you who’ve seen a fair number of films like this shouldn’t have much trouble narrowing the field. That mild predictability comes with the territory, but a smarter, fresher resolution would have been appreciated. The direction it takes is instead the expected slasher route despite its initial meta leanings.
Timlin shows talent but continues to find herself in subpar projects (excluding her turn as Sasha Bingham on Californication of course). She handles the drama of the situation well and does even better in her many moments of terror. Unfortunately, though, the film itself is less successful in creating that terror. The film is never scary, and while it surpasses the original in every other regard, it lacks that film’s (possibly accidental and definitely temporary) ability to create a creepy vibe.
Like too many examples in the genre, The Town That Dreaded Sundown has nothing to say of lasting value and fails to stand apart from the crowd with its script or characters. It’s an easy watch though and an attractive one, and fans can do far worse than pay this town a visit.
The Upside: Slick and well-shot production; solid gore effects
The Downside: Script is uninteresting and lacks smarts; finale regresses to laughable “slasher” cliches; the trombone kill is still dumb
On the Side: This is the first American film to open with the Orion Pictures logo since 1999.