‘The Town That Dreaded Sundown’ aims high but settles for mediocrity

Thursday marks the return of the College of William and Mary’s Global Film Festival and this year’s theme is “Film & Renewal.” This weekend’s films will highlight all forms of renewal: environmental, personal, cinematic and otherwise. In the spirit of the festival, I will address a recent example of cinematic renewal. As a self-proclaimed horror nerd, I was excited by the prospect of watching the remake of the 1976 film “The Town that Dreaded Sundown.” The film’s trailer generated quite a bit of buzz, but how would it fare as a renewal?

This 2014 update of “The Town that Dreaded Sundown,” produced by Ryan Murphy and directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon of “American Horror Story” fame, toes the line between meta-sequel and remake. The original film, which was based on a series of gruesome, real-life murders in Texarkana, exists in this update’s universe and is screened every Halloween. The film begins with a copycat killer intent on reminding people of the murders that occurred 66 years earlier. Based on its opening scene, the film promises to be an innovative slasher film and a subversion of the genre, but it never fully achieves these ambitious goals.

It is not difficult to check off all of the requisite aesthetics and archetypes of the slasher subgenre. If you have a masked killer and teenagers lined up for the chopping block, you’ve fulfilled most of the necessary requirements. However, the Murphy/Gomez-Rejon team, filled out by screenwriter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, is out for more than just blood.

From the start, the group delivers familiar iconography, using it in a slightly unfamiliar, almost unexplainable way. Much of the plot does not progress in the style of the average slasher film, perhaps because its identity is split between being a slasher film and a murder mystery. The plot simultaneously builds a repeated motif. As much as the film would like to assert that self-awareness is its strong suit, it often succumbs to the pitfalls of the genre, especially during the finale.

The film depicts Texarkana as an idyllic American-dream small town poised to descend into a twisty, dystopian nightmare. An active camera covering the landscape, interesting lighting choices, and quick editing make it an exciting viewing experience, especially during the film’s hyperkinetic kill sequences.

The film remains tactful about how much carnage is shown. It is grisly enough to satisfy the gorehounds,but knows when to let the audience conjure its own images. Even with an 86-minute runtime, the film remains frantic — unfortunately to a fault. Because the film is so fast-paced, much of the terror’s impact is stunted, leaving the film with a lot of bark and little bite as it sprints along.

If anything, the most frustrating part of watching ”The Town that Dreaded Sundown” was trying to uncover its deeper meanings and supposed subversion of the genre, only to come away with almost nothing. Hints and nudges weave throughout the film, offering commentary on genre conventions; the film self-reflexively employs familiar tropes while simultaneously avoiding others.

The film demonstrates an awareness of the genre theory that has called slasher films covertly conservative entertainment. It spends much time depicting a town steeped in patriarchal, religious traditionalism that would rather keep its female protagonist quiet than work through its own trauma. Additionally, the film’s victims are killed after engaging in or speaking of sexual acts that such a town would consider transgressive, which demonstrates an awareness of slasher tropes and serves its rhetoric on conservative societies. Frequently, the film displays sparks of intelligence, only to fail seeing them through. They are undone by the movie’s conclusion: All of it is a cinematic ego boost.

“The Town that Dreaded Sundown” is interesting enough to warrant a viewing and perhaps even discussion about its place in the genre, but it never seems to move past the conventions that inspired it. Given the names attached, I expected a much finer product. Instead, what I got was something aggressively, overwhelmingly and frustratingly average.

Rating: 2 out of 4 stars


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