It will always be to the benefit of a remake when the original isn’t very good or well known. Instead of choosing a beloved classic to screw over, à la Platinum Dunes, The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) was a proto-slasher and police procedural drama made by indie exploitation maestro, Charles B. Pierce. The film, considered his best, was a modest hit and eventual cult item.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014) is a clever mystery thriller stylishly executed. Unlike other movies purportedly ‘based on a true story’, this one, along with its predecessor, actually is. A masked maniac known as the Phantom Killer vanished from the town of Texarkana after a spate of random killings, in 1946. As with the Whitechapel or Zodiac cases, the fiend was never identified or brought to justice.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, making his directorial debut, backed by Blumhouse Productions and Ryan Murphy, has crafted a playful remake and a direct sequel. Amazingly, being both things at the same time works out very well. The new film acknowledges the events of 1946 and Pierce’s production. Among the genre thrills – it’s gory and packed with suspense sequences – questions are posed about how cinema tackles source material drawn from real life and then alters facts to suit the fiction. Movies become another version of the truth.
Just as the East End is full of Jack the Ripper tours, and infamous murder spots are photographed and visited by tourists, Texarkana ‘celebrates’ their claim to fame on the murder map with an annual screening of The Town That Dreaded Sundown every Halloween. It goes to show how a spot of infamy and macabre local history can be embraced at the behest of sensitivity and community feeling. The film’s opening scene takes place at the town’s local drive-in, with the annual screening underway and Edward Herrman’s firebrand preacher handing out leaflets, informing the kids that the movie they’re half-paying attention to is ‘Godless’.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown is also a spin on the classic ‘sins of the father’ theme. Here, rather amusingly, it becomes ‘sins of the film-maker’. Somebody in Texarkana is mightily aggrieved they didn’t make final cut first time around. The whole – read: true – story wasn’t told. Screenwriters take liberties with source material all the time, and for various reasons. It suggests that Pierce’s failure to address the evidence he found during research into what the press dubbed ‘The Moonlight Murders’ has wrought a new wave of terror.