The Town That Dreaded Sundown begins with Texarkana resident Jami Lerner at the local drive-in with Corey. They are watching the original 1976 flick at an annual screening on Hallowe'en night. Jami is not having a good time so the young couple take off and find a secluded spot in the border town to do what it is that young people do in secluded spots.
The young couple spot someone dressed as the Phantom Killer, the villain from the first film, looking at them from the woods. They go to leave when the Phantom Killer attacks them and slays Corey with Jami's back turned away from the violence. She makes a break for it through the woods but the Phantom catches her. He does nothing to her except say, "This is for Mary. Make them remember." Jami must unravel the mystery behind this statement and the Phantom Killer's identity before too many townspeople are killed.
Okay. Before we continue, I have not seen the original 1976 film by Charles B. Pierce. From what I have read briefly about that film, there may be some similarities but director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and screenplay writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa have created a harsher and more brutal meta-sequel to the original. I will not be able to offer a comparison so I can only speak to the strengths of Gomez-Rejon's flick, which takes place some 65 years after the original Moonlight Murders that inspired Pierce's flick.
First off, his The Town That Dreaded Sundown is stylish as hell. He makes every effort to make his flick a pleasure to look when you are not turning your head away or closing your eyes during the kill scenes. From his opening crane shot up and over the drive-in screen he injects much style and flare into it. Few slasher flicks can claim that they look this good on screen. His work with Michael Goi, director of photography on American Horror Story: Freak Show, elevates the visual standards of slasher flicks.
As far as story goes, Aguirre-Sacasa's script moves at a steady pace, with kills coming in at regular intervals. With clues left on screen by Gomez-Rejon, I was completely engaged and looking for any visual hints as to who the killer might be. I kept looking at the Phantom Killer's eyes. In one scene where he takes out a couple of young lovers who stop at a graveyard for abandoned signs, I thought an arrow was pointing out a suspect, but afterwards letters on the ground are arranged to send a message to the audience. I kept looking for more of these clues throughout the rest of the film.
And here is another important part about the screenplay. No unlikable characters! Sure, you will not fall in love with everyone on screen but you are not left feeling ill will towards anyone. Addison Timlin meets the needs for the girl next door just fine. Anthony Anderson provides some comedic relief as Texas Ranger Lone Wolf Morales, though I am led to believe there is considerably less humor in this new film than the '76 flick. There is no Sparkplug in drag this time around.
As far as the slasher violence is concerned, every effort is made to make it brutal and bloody, even if Gomez-Rejon hides some of it from plain sight. He replays the trombone scene to sickening effect. There is a repeat of the train-yard scene. But with kills coming in on a solid clip there is no shortage of townspeople meeting untimely, surprising and gruesome deaths.
My only real hangup about this new film is the villain reveal at the end, when the identity of the Phantom Killer is revealed. Without spoiling it, I felt really let down by it because one of the motivations felt really out of place. It is in tune with small town living but because there was no pre-cursor for it early on it just came out of left field. Do yourself a favor and try not to read any plot descriptions on any other pages or sites because the 'surprise' is given away. I understand what Aguirre-Sacasa and Gomez-Rejon are trying to do here. It has not been pulled off very well in a long time. I was simply let down by it is all.
Otherwise, I was surprised by this slasher flick. Gomez-Rejon directs the hell out of it, putting more style and effort into a slasher flick than the genre has any right to. The kills come at a steady and bloody pace. And though I was let down by the big reveal at the end of the film the story held my interest and I was actually engaging with the film more than I thought I would be. This is a terrific and bloody debut for Gomez-Rejon. If there is one horror flick this Hallowe'en season that will get you in the mood, it is this one!
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