Neither strictly a remake nor sequel, this flawed but ambitious and interesting meta-horror draws on the pop cultural legacy of Charles B. Pierce's original 1976 true-crime slasher film. Based on a real, unsolved murder case from 1946, Pierce's film proved surprisingly popular in the town where the so-called Phantom committed his crimes: Texarkana, Texas. There it is screened each year on Halloween as what the narrator of the 2014 version, somewhat dubiously, calls a "tribute to the Phantom's legacy of fear and blood."
At a drive-in screening of the original Town That Dreaded Sundown orphaned high school girl Jami (Addison Timlin) grows squeamish so boyfriend Corey (Spencer Treat Clark) drives her off to a secluded place so they can make out. Sure enough, their petting session is interrupted by a sack-masked Phantom. He brutally murders Corey but leaves Jami bloodied but alive with the message: "This is for Mary, make them remember." Once more the town of Texarkana is stricken with terror as more courting couples die violent deaths. Local preacher Reverend Cartwright (Edward Herrmann) blames it all on the "godless" movie while Texas ranger Lone Wolf Morales (Anthony Anderson) joins dodgy deputies Tillman (Gary Cole) and Foster (Joshua Leonard) to track the killer. Meanwhile a traumatized Jami struggles with survivor's guilt trying to adjust to a normal life when the Phantom taunts her with e-mails and phone-calls. Teaming up with creepy Nick (Travis Tope), a crime archivist at the Sheriff's department with a crush on Jami, she sets after the Phantom herself.
Co-producers Jason Blum, of Blumhouse Productions: the outfit behind Paranormal Activity (2007) and Insidious (2010), and Ryan Murphy the man behind Glee and perhaps more pertinently American Horror Story, score genre brownie points by casting Veronica Cartwright, veteran of The Birds (1963) and Alien (1979), as Jami's grandmother. While the film foolishly squanders Anthony Anderson's charismatic turn as Lone Wolf Morales and, compared with the original, sidelines the police investigators on the whole, Addison Timlin registers very strongly as the cruelly victimized heroine. Jamie's personal struggle to not allow the murders define herself or her future is the most compelling aspect of The Town That Dreaded Sundown 2014. Despite a handful of in-jokes, including a brief cameo from a character called Sparkplug (the comic relief portrayed by Charles B. Pierce himself in the original) and some darkly comic sex killings, the film distances itself from the nudge and wink tone of jokey slashers like Scream (1996). It is a gloomy, downbeat, slightly depressing psychological study of victimization and lives shattered by the legacy of a murderer. The killer's victims are not the usual obnoxious types but instead drawn as caring, occasionally even tragic characters which leaves their brutal deaths much more shattering.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon plays meta games: cross-cutting new scenes with footage from the original, re-staging famous moments (this time a closeted interracial gay couple suffer the infamous death by trombone) and even has Denis O'Hare portray the son of Charles B. Pierce as a sort of dissolute variation on Randy the Film Geek. He claims his dad was a genius who could have been another Orson Welles (ha!) if he had gone to Hollywood but chose to remain in Texas to tell Texan stories. In reality, Pierce did make it to Hollywood only as a set decorator on mainstream films though he also co-wrote the Dirty Harry sequel Sudden Impact (1983). The screenplay by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Earl E. Smith critiques Pierce's film for exploiting real crimes but kind of does the same thing. It never clarifies the intention behind a muddled subtext that seems to imply the townsfolk brought this horror on themselves. Gomez-Rejon is clearly a gifted filmmaker and stages several suspenseful scenes rife with retro-Seventies style but fumbles a few would-be shock twists that fail to make a dramatic impact. It is a well made, well acted, handsome looking film yet uncertain about what it is really trying to say.