Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #651
Number of Views: One
Release Date: October 16, 2014
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 86 minutes
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Producers: Jason Blum, Ryan Murphy
Screenplay: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Based on The Town That Dreaded Sundown by Charles B. Pierce
Special Effects: Robin Myriah Hatcher
Visual Effects: Jason Piccioni
Cinematography: Michael Goi
Score: Ludwig Göransson
Editing: Joe Leonard
Studios: Blumhouse Productions, Ryan Murphy Productions
Distributor: Orion Pictures
Stars: Addison Timlin, Travis Tope, Ed Lauter, Veronica Cartwright, Gary Cole, Anthony Anderson, Joshua Leonard, Edward Herrmann, Spencer Treat Clark, Wes Chatham, Morganna Bridgers, Andy Abele, Arabella Field, Denis O’Hare
Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫
 The Walker Brothers “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”
 Ludwig Göransson “Main Title”
I’ve always been rather fond of sundown. It’s the crack of dawn I have a problem with; being woken at an ungodly hour and having to make conversation until I’ve had my first caffeine fix of the day. I get that sunlight is a great source of vitamin D and exposure to its rays can assist in enhancing both mood and energy. But the allure of nightcrawling is too strong to ignore and I’m at my most sprightly as the day wears on to its natural conclusion. Indeed there is more chance of me falling asleep during a film if I watch it during daylight hours; whereas sit me down for a midnight matinée and I’m bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Go figure. There are things I dread in life just like the next man but sundown certainly ain’t one of them.
The inhabitants of sleepy American town, Texarkana, aren’t quite so keen, and to be honest, they’ve got fairly good reason to scurry off back to their cozy homes come lights out. You see, their history is steeped in misfortune stretching all the way back to 1946. It was around that time that The Phantom Killer made himself known, slaughtering several of their inhabitants in the process. Texarkana was no longer considered a safe place to visit and the ghost of these vicious killings has hung like a thick black mist over their streets ever since.
Eventually memories fade, and thirty years later, a film titled The Town That Dreaded Sundown was commissioned to document this tragic turn of events. While its director, Charles B. Pierce, died some years ago, it has since become tradition to screen his work annually in the local drive-in theater every Halloween night and these murders are now seen as an integral part of the town’s rich history. Herein lies the problem. The thing about cycles is that they have a tendency to come back around after sufficient water has passed under the bridge and a copycat killer has now taken it upon himself to terrorize the locals for old time’s sake. This is particularly unsavory news for button cute high school senior, Jami Lerner (Addison Timlin), who has to suffer the indignity of watching on helplessly as The Phantom brutally claims his first victim, her make-out buddy no less.
Jami can count herself decidedly provident to have survived this unpalatable episode, although not before being informed of her duty to “make them remember”. Suddenly the town is gripped by terror once more and it looks like history is all set to repeat itself.
The local law enforcement are at sixes and sevens and have precious little in the way of leads to go on. Thus they call upon the services of Texas Ranger Lone Wolf Morales (Anthony Anderson) to assist with the ongoing investigation. However, while provided her own personal police escort in the kindly Deputy Foster (Joshua Leonard), Jami isn’t the kind of gal to let the grass grow under her feet, especially given that her antagonist has somehow managed to obtain her e-mail address and kicked off the correspondence.
She promptly heads over to City Hall to poke through their archives and runs into old school friend, Nick (Travis Tope), who just happens to be a clerk there and evidently still carries a torch for her. Together the pair start digging for clues, but all the while, The Phantom is getting to grips with a brand new reign of terror.
While this is the feature-length debut of Texas native Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, those familiar with American Horror Story should be more than aware of his work. Having directed a dozen episodes of the hugely popular series between 2011 and 2014, he puts that experience to good use, implementing all manner of tilt angles and gravity-defying camera techniques to put his own stylish stamp on proceedings. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s screenplay aids and abets by focusing primarily on the mystery element, as opposed to taking the usual tick box slasher angle. That said, when the moonlight murders come, they punctuate the calm with suitably disquieting effect, paying affectionate homage to Pierce’s 1976 original and recreating its destabilizing nature.
What sets The Town That Dreaded Sundown apart from the customary remake fodder is the meta-sequel approach that Gomez-Rejon adopts. By acknowledging its predecessor as a film based on actual events and using it as a cunning launch-pad to get the audience up to speed, it provides fresh perspective to the simple tale of a small town facing up to its burgeoning demons and this deserves to be applauded. Michael Goi’s photography makes the very most of the burnt orange sunsets and homely interiors, employing numerous aerial shots to provide us a bird’s-eye view of the locality in question, before bringing it in for that all-important hug. Meanwhile, the score from Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson assists no end in creating a sense of overbearing alarm, shifting from melancholic to perplexing on a nickel.
The Phantom Killer himself cuts a formidable figure against the fading sunlight, openly vocalizing his intent, whilst hanging back in the shadows all wraith-like so as not to fall victim of over exposure. Sporting a burlap sack reminiscent of Jason Voorhees before hockey season commenced, he looks suitably spectral and is only too willing to back this up with brutality at any given moment. There is also able support from the likes of veterans Edward Hermann, Gary Cole and Veronica Cartwright, while a brief detour to visit Pierce’s son (played by Denis O’Haire), offers up a canny nod to the docudrama leanings of its illustrious forerunner.
Job’s a good ‘un then right? To a certain degree, yes. As a chronicle of the impact of tragedy on a tight-knit Southern state community, it hits the spot more often than not. The chase scene through moonlit corn rows provides one breathless highlight and Gomez-Rejon manages to pull the rug from beneath our feet on more than an isolated occasion. That said, Anderson’s Texas Ranger feels largely inconsequential, there are perhaps too many red-herrings scattered about for my liking, a tad too much reliance on cinematic chic to truly burrow beneath our skin and itch, and it is culpable of surrendering a dash of focus as a direct result.
Let it be known that Timlin gives an excellent account of herself as our beleaguered lead and the entire cast play their part in capturing the ghostly spirit of the source fiction. But it never quite catches fire as it should and isn’t likely to live on in your memory once the sun rises. Let’s not retire the trombone just yet, as like Patrick Lussier’s My Bloody Valentine 2009 reboot, its small town mentality still serves it well. Moreover, it is refreshing to see a grungy classic dusted down in such an out-of-the-box manner. However, with the blazing midday sun now little more than a fading memory, it doesn’t quite do enough to dissuade me from pulling that all-nighter.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10
Grue Factor: 3/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: One massive plus is the practical SFX work of Robin Myriah Hatcher which is never anything less than on-point. Such bursts of violence are commendably strong, with a number of grisly instances to feast those weary eyes on. Peepers are plundered with nary a second’s warning; bones splintered; bodies hacked, slashed and the parts discarded on train tracks; scarecrows fashioned by way of mock crucifixion; and it’s great to see the notorious custom-built trombone make such a spirited comeback. After assuming position front and centre for its off-kilter symphony of bum notes, I’m now harboring severe doubts about signing up for summer band camp.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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