Collins’ Crypt: Can THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN Start A New Slasher Cycle?

Brian thinks a revival is in order.

I've tweeted this once or twice, but let's set it in more solid e-stone: we're now as far removed from Scream as Scream was from Halloween - 18 years, to be exact. Part of the fun of Scream was that it was reviving the completely dead slasher sub-genre after it had its day in the sun during the early '80s, and for a while now I've been saying it's time for it to rebound once again. The post-Scream slasher wave wasn't nearly as prolific as the one in the early '80s, when there was a new slasher hitting theaters (if only in regional release) just about every week, but it certainly had its noticeable peak (late 1997 through 1998) and clear end, in 2001/2002 when the last of the big budget originals came and went (Valentine) and the new series (Scream, Urban Legend) had stalled. There have been very few major attempts at a revival since: the Halloween remake and its sequel felt more like survival horror entries than traditional slashers (Rob Zombie didn't seem much interested in having his Myers actually stalk anyone), and other efforts such as the Sorority Row remake were dismissed and forgotten instantly. Even when something hit - like 2009's My Bloody Valentine and Friday the 13th updates - they wouldn't produce immediate sequels or ripoffs, which is what keeps this sub-genre alive.

No, paranormal and possession type movies have been the order of the day for the past few years, but with those seemingly losing their box office muster unless James Wan is involved, there will inevitably be a new wave of SOME kind of horror movie. A monster revival would be nice, but with Dracula Untold unlikely to make its money back, I doubt it'll inspire much activity (though perhaps the planned shared universe for the classic roster of Universal monsters will do the trick), and I don't see survival/hardcore horror (the Hostel/Saw kind) making a big comeback anytime soon. But slashers? I can see that, and the remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown might be a fine way to kick it off. I caught the film at Beyond Fest's closing night this past weekend, and I can honestly say it's one of the better remakes and a respectable whodunit slasher in its own right.

It's also not really a remake, traditionally speaking, as it takes place in "our world", where 1976's The Town That Dreaded Sundown, directed by Charles B. Pierce, is a kinda junky cult movie that's based on a series of unsolved murders. The potential for meta bullshit is vast (especially when that 1976 film ended with its killer going to see a movie based on his crimes), but thankfully the script by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa keeps it to a minimum. A good point of reference would be the Stab films in the Scream series, where the film they watch is based on crimes that happened to or around them, but that's pretty much the extent of it. As the original murders took place in the '40s and this new film takes place in the present, it'd be impossible to populate the cast with survivors, witnesses, or the killer himself since most have died or would be in their 80s/90s if they had any direct involvement, so there's surprisingly little connection. I mean, it's not like Andrew Prine is brought in as an expert or something.

So what's this one about? Well basically there's a copycat killer running loose in Texarkana, and in the opening sequence he kills Corey (Spencer Treat Clark) and wounds Jami (Addison Timlin), while saying he's doing it for someone named Mary. Once she recovers, Jami sets about trying to figure out who this new killer is and how he connects to the original, somewhat hoping to solve that mystery as well. It's a unique approach to a whodunit; even though we know that this Jason Blum movie isn't going to spring the killer's true identity on us and solve a 70 year old mystery, it's still kind of compelling to see how they put the (fictional?) pieces together while also dodging the killer that's actually still around. We can safely assume that the Phantom Killer is dead by now, or at least unable to don a pillowcase mask and run around killing people (he'd be at around 90 years old today, given the description that put him in his 20s in 1946), but even though he poses no immediate threat it's still fun to hear a theory, not unlike pretty much any Jack the Ripper movie that's ever been made.

In fact it's more fun than solving the present day mystery, since any astute slasher fan will peg who the killer is within 5 minutes of his/her introduction. I won't spoil it here, but I was disappointed that they didn't make it a bit harder, though to be fair the reveal involves another twist I didn't see coming. The original film never bothers offering up a conspiracy theory, so it's just nice to have an actual ending this time around, and (minor spoiler) I quite enjoyed the fact that it has to do with not only the original series of murders, but also the original film. Pierce's son Charles Jr (a real person, best remembered as the oft-shirtless Tim in Boggy Creek II) is a character in the movie, played by Dennis O'Hare, who offers up a bunch of exposition concerning a part of the story Pearce neglected to include in his movie. It probably sounds more confusing on paper than it really is, I assure you.

One thing that surprised me was how brutal the killings were. They more or less mimic the ones from the original movie (including, yes, the trombone), but the killer is very stab happy and also not afraid to take out some extra people after he's finished recreating all of the movie's murders. Without as much comic relief this time (you might expect some from Anthony Anderson, as he previously appeared as such a character in Urban Legend 2 and Scream 4, but he plays it pretty straight), the movie is undeniably creepier and scarier as a whole, with some fine chase scenes (a motel sequence being one particular highlight) and an admirable variety of settings. The trombone actually pales in comparison to the location it is used; a graveyard of sorts for old neon signs and billboards, so our victims are running around discarded giant ABCs and the like as opposed to the usual woods or whatever. Gomez-Rejon also stages a great bit at a gas station near the end that has you suspecting a few different characters, only to - well, you'll see.

My only complaints, besides (as I mentioned) the easy to spot killer, is that Gomez-Rejon occasionally goes overboard with stylistic flourishes, which I found simply more distracting more than anything. Some are quite nice - I liked the long shadows and red lighting for the opening kill, and overlaid graphics on Jami's face as she does some research, but other times I just got the sense that he was bored with a particular scene and threw in film-school wank to make up for it. There are more diopter shots than even Brian De Palma would feel comfortable with, and I'm not sure why he kept turning the camera at a 90 degree angle during a chase scene. To be fair it's not as obnoxious as his work on American Horror Story (no fish eye lenses, thank Christ), but it does worry me that he's too obsessed with finding the "cool" way to shoot something instead of simply the "right" way to do so. I also wish they had spent more time with the cops; not only are they played by great actors (Gary Cole and the awesome Ed Lauter, who passed away not too long after filming his role here) but this Sundown introduces an angle that the original movie lacked - the fact that since Texarkana splits across two states, there are two police forces, two mayors, etc. I would have liked to see more of this jurisdictional situation play out as opposed to a subplot stolen from Scream, where our heroine is afraid to have sex with her boyfriend.

But those are pretty minor. All I care about, ultimately, is that I was in a big theater with a big crowd while eating a big (OK, medium) popcorn as I watched a new masked slasher movie, something I haven't been able to in years. While the indie/foreign market has produced a few winners (Cold Prey, Behind the Mask, etc) over the past decade and thus provided my fix, these movies should be on the big screen so we can hear the roar of a crowd after a satisfying kill (or in this case, a production logo for a long-defunct distributor, as the Orion logo got the biggest response of the movie), and cheers for the heroine when she dispatches her foe. Blumhouse isn't giving the film the wide release it deserves, for whatever reason, but perhaps a strong showing in its limited run can send a message that horror fans are excited about slashers again. The original isn't exactly a classic that we hold sacred (and besides, all of those films have been remade anyway), so there shouldn't be much backlash against its very existence; if anything it's kind of impressive that of all movies, THIS is the one that might help kickstart a new slasher trend. The original was out of print for ages (in fact it never even got an official DVD release in the US), so it's always been one of those movies that we knew the name (thanks in part to Scream, ironically enough) but hadn't actually seen. The curious remake/sequel approach makes it worth tracking down, though I feel this is the superior film, and hopefully it can be counted along several other slashers when we discuss "the mid 2010's slasher boom" someday.