It may have been John Carpenter’s Hallowe’en in 1978 which is generally regarded as the film which brought the slasher horror subgenre to prominence but it was far from the first, with Bob Clark’s Black Christmas appearing in 1974 (“The calls are coming from inside the house!”) and The Town That Dreaded Sundown playing the drive-in movie lots of America in late 1976.
Directed by Charles B Pierce, known for The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972), it was based on the genuine unsolved case of Phantom Killer who plagued Texarkana on the border of Texas and Arkansas in 1946, never caught though several suspects were arrested. Now, a generation after that first celluloid exploitation of the unidentified killer, the people of Texarkana remember their dark history with an annual Hallowe’en screening of that film based on the “moonlight murders,” and in 2013 it takes place by the woods…
The camera prowling through the massed cars, the teenagers in pairs, the few older members of the audience suspiciously alone, the God squad at the back protesting the screening as they place flyers under windscreen wipers, Jami Lerner (Californication‘s Addison Timlin) and Corey Holland (Much Ado About Nothing‘s Spencer Treat Clark) have more interest in each other than the film, so they leave the screening to proceed to the inevitably named Lover’s Lane.
So wholesome they are almost a parody, screaming “victims” even before the credits have rolled, she is the top student aiming high with a slew of applications pending with out of state universities, he the football player hoping for a scholarship. Alone in the deep forest she spies a masked figure, and by the stark red of their tail lights they are attacked. Told to turn her back, Jami is forced to listen as Corey is murdered; running to the trees, she pursued and caught, but her life is spared in return for passing the killer’s message: “I’m doing it for Mary.”
When another couple is attacked, both of them killed while the community holds meetings to decide jurisdictions and point fingers Jami determines to investigate for herself, helped by former classmate Nick Strain (Boardwalk Empire‘s Travis Tope) who works at the local newspaper and has access to the historical reports. “I don’t think we’ll figure out who the Phantom is now if we don’t figure out who the Phantom was then.”
Frequent American Horror Story director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon loves his Dutch angles but while the high production values of that latter show mean it has a feature quality, with a nasty video quality to the lighting The Town That Dreaded Sundown often looks more like a television show shot cheaply on video, and there are other noticeable technical limitations. Archive footage seen on television sets has obviously been digitally inserted during post-production and it is quite apparent the final outdoor confrontation is very much studiobound.
Fortunately, for a film so named, the golden fall sunsets are glorious and costume designer Stephani Lewis has consciously echoed the styles and colours of the seventies in clothing her leads.
Unlike similar teen slashers too numerous (and undeserving) to recount, the film actually tries to make the characters likeable and on the whole succeeds. Principally told from Jami’s point of view rather than the official investigation it is unusual in that the police are receptive to what she has to say, though not particularly effective: no curfew is initiated, no extra troops are drafted in, there is not one mention of forensic evidence which might identify the copycat killer.
Her resume including The Birds, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien, The Witches of Eastwick and The X-Files, Veronica Carwright is sadly wasted as Lillian, Jami’s entirely passive grandmother who was a young child during the original killings. Faring slightly better is True Blood and American Horror Story‘s Denis O’Hare, predictably brilliant and sinister in what is little more than a cameo, though at least his character serves a narrative purpose.
There is a sense that the superb supporting cast were asked to participate simply to add credibility to the project, as none have significant roles or are asked to demonstrate the wealth of talent for which they are recognised, a waste of the decades of experience they carry: Gary Cole (Midnight Caller, American Gothic) as Chief Deputy Tillman, Ed Lauter (The Rocketeer, Star Trek The Next Generation) as Sheriff Underwood and Edward Herrmann (The Lost Boys, Gilmore Girls) as Reverend Cartwright.
With both Lauter and Hermann both having died since production completed, it is disappointing that their roles were not more significant.
Where it had so far refrained, the stupid button is well and truly pushed in the final act, Jami and her grandmother choosing to flee Texarkana in the middle of the night when prudence would suggest waiting the few hours until dawn would be both more practical and safer; worse, filling up their tank at the gas station they split up and fail to observe even basic precautions. While from early on it teased Scream’s awareness of the history of horror, the final scenes abandon any attempt at originality or sense and simply collapse into that film.
Disappointingly, her credibility earlier undermined by a revelation of how her parents died which owes more than a small debt to Phoebe Cates’ Christmas confession in Gremlins, while Jami remains strong throughout the final confrontation is taken out of her hands, a betrayal of the building sense that she is to be a strong heroine following in the steps of Jamie
Lee Curtis and what began so well fails to become either sufficiently original or satisfying homage.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown is scheduled for release on Friday 10th April