Fantastic Fest Review: THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN Twists The Remake Knife

The latest horror reboot has a clever gimmick. Is that enough?

The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a remake/meta-sequel that earns points for some surprisingly mean-spirited violence, and for having as innovative an answer to “why the hell are they remaking this?” as I’ve ever seen. Sadly the things it does so well make the film’s pedestrian connective tissue stand out that much more, and viewers are left wishing the whole thing added up to more than a rickety frame onto which some sick, fun pieces are hung.

After a somber, opening narration which recaps both the 1976 film and the true story upon which it’s based, we meet Jami (Addison Timlin) and Corey (Spencer Treat Clark), on a date at a drive-in, the town’s annual screening of the 1976 film underway. The film is creeping Jami out, so they drive off and park in a secluded area to make out. Given they've just watched a film - based on a true story set in their town - in which the opening scene features two lovers being murdered while parked at Lovers’ Lane, this seems like maybe a bad call. Any dude who pulls this move on a date is either an idiot, a perv or a maniac. Sure enough, these two daredevils are soon staring down the barrel of a gun wielded by a bag-headed creep who looks a whole lot like the original film’s Phantom. Bloody mayhem ensues, and a haunted protagonist emerges from the carnage.

From there, the film’s plot tracks the original’s because, we learn, the new killer is intentionally "remaking" all the kills from the original. Once I got past the fact that once upon a time this was exactly my half-baked idea for a Fade To Black remake, I appreciated this twist on reboot culture. The killer’s motivations are tied to the fact that the original film (and thus the legend) has omitted one of the actual victims, and the 2014 Phantom wants people to remember. A supporting cast of endearingly familiar faces (Gary Cole, Edward Herrmann, Ed Lauter and Veronica Cartwright) keeps you guessing as to the killer's identity, and keeps the film from ever feeling too unsafe.

Despite its DNA coming from the world of 1970s grindhouse fare, this year’s model is all polished, toothless surface - for about 20 minutes. With the second big set piece, the film jumps the tracks into hard R territory, amping up the sex and violence in a way that’s really jarring - and kind of refreshing. The effect is not unlike watching 1997's I Know What You Did Last Summer with all the best parts of My Bloody Valentine 3D spliced in.

Unfortunately, it’s not enough to sustain the mood. For every murder that occurs mid-blowjob, there are a half-dozen plodding scenes of lovely teen protags playing junior detectives, and I don’t know if that’s been all that interesting since Heather Langenkamp was rooting around in her mom’s furnace in 1984. It’s all very stylish (some might say overlit), courtesy of director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (American Horror Story). But the meta gimmick is eventually tapped dry, and the third act is undone by a final twist that is both unoriginal and unearned.

Confession: I haven’t seen the original The Town That Dreaded Sundown in possibly 30 years. Watching the new film, I suspected it would play best to viewers possessing a fuzzy memory of the original. As evidenced by the way the film flash cuts to corresponding scenes from the original during its kills, the filmmakers might be in agreement. But the hardcore horror crowd might be less easily swayed. The original The Town That Dreaded Sundown isn’t some untouchable classic, but had the new version tipped into the disreputable end of the pool a bit more, it’d be an easier movie to recommend.