Monday, February 2, 2015


(US - 2014)

Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Cast: Addison Timlin, Veronica Cartwright, Gary Cole, Anthony Anderson, Edward Herrmann, Joshua Leonard, Denis O'Hare, Travis Tope, Ed Lauter, Andy Abele, Spencer Treat Clark, Wes Chatham, Lance E. Nichols. (R, 86 mins)

Charles B. Pierce's revered 1976 cult classic THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN provides the foundation for this reboot/meta-sequel of sorts that makes the creative decision of incorporating the existence of the original film into its story. A thriller dramatizing a series of murders in the small Texas/Arkansas border town of Texarkana in 1946 by a sack-hooded killer dubbed "The Phantom," SUNDOWN '76 has enjoyed a devoted following over the years despite its uneven structure and dismal comic relief, unwisely provided by Pierce himself as numb-skulled deputy Sparkplug. As a director, Pierce (THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK) is Pierce the actor's biggest fan, repeatedly killing the momentum with Sparkplug's wacky antics, blithely oblivious to how much damage his slapstick self-indulgence does to an otherwise well-made, chillingly effective film. A drive-in hit in its day, SUNDOWN '76 is still embraced by horror fans who are obviously more forgiving of Sparkplug than I am--I don't exaggerate when I say Pierce's endless clowning ruins his own movie. There's no doubting SUNDOWN '76's influence: its killer's "Sackhead" look was blatantly copied for the pre-hockey mask Jason in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 (1981).

Co-produced by GLEE and AMERICAN HORROR STORY mastermind Ryan Murphy and, like every current horror movie, "from the producer of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and INSIDIOUS," SUNDOWN '14 takes place in present-day Texarkana, still a tiny town forever haunted by the events not just of 65 years earlier, but by the movie itself, now such a cult classic that its drive-in showings and TV airings have made it as much of the town's history as the murders that influenced it. In a way, orphaned teenager Jami (Addison Timlin) is herself a victim of the SUNDOWN mythology even though she was born decades after both the murders and the movie. Years earlier, frightened by the movie being shown and someone wearing a sackhead hood at a sleepover, young Jami called her parents to come and pick her up and they were killed in a car accident on the way home, leaving Jami to be raised by her grandmother Lillian (Veronica Cartwright). After leaving a showing of the movie because of her obvious discomfort, Jami and her boyfriend Corey (Spencer Treat Clark) are accosted in a nearby dirt-road Lovers' Lane by a sackheaded copycat who brutally kills Corey. Jami escapes, but the murders continue, prompting the sheriff (the late, great character actor Ed Lauter, who died in 2013, shortly after the film's completion) and his asshole deputy Tillman (Gary Cole) to bring in Texas Ranger Lone Wolf Morales (Anthony Anderson, very good in some unexpected casting) to help find the madman. Meanwhile, Jami and shy library archive staffer Nick (Travis Tope) conduct their own investigation, leading them to none other than Charles B. Pierce, Jr (Denis O'Hare), who insists he knows the copycat killer's true identity.

Anchored by a strong performance by the charming Timlin, who looks and sounds like the second coming of late '80s scream queen Jill Schoelen (THE STEPFATHER, POPCORN), SUNDOWN '14 is a surprisingly effective sleeper that deserved more exposure than it got from the relaunched Orion Pictures. Scripted by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (a writer on GLEE and AHS who also penned 2013's dreary CARRIE remake) and directed by Murphy's GLEE/AHS vet Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who utilizes numerous visual tricks like some De Palma split-diopters, long tracking shots, and impressively swooping and well-choreographed crane shots. These days, it's expected that a reboot of this sort will be filled with self-conscious snark and shock value in place of actual horror (especially coming from so many AMERICAN HORROR STORY personnel), but SUNDOWN '14 is legitimately scary, with Sackhead's attacks--several of the '76 film's more iconic kills are restaged here--startling, brutal, and utterly relentless. But beyond it just being an unexpectedly solid fright film, SUNDOWN '14 is ambitious and very clever, with special attention given to showy filmmaking technique, giallo-inspired color schemes, and inspired mise-en-scene, from the jarring ways Gomez-Rejon has Sackhead enter the frame when you least expect it to the sardonic placement of a dead-end road sign.

There's also the scathing visual commentary of a billboard of finger-pointing, fear-mongering, Bible-thumping Reverend Cartwright (the late Edward Herrmann in one of his last roles) forming the backdrop of a shot that puts his judgmental visage right between two gay male high-school students about to have sex in a car before Sackhead attacks. Another scene set in a junkyard filled with signs of all the defunct Texarkana businesses that have gone under or left town over the years is essentially eulogizing the passing of small-town America. The empty streets and boarded-up storefronts of downtown Texarkana reveal a town decimated by past tragedies from which it can never recover and those ghosts are everywhere. Without the 1976 movie to keep it in the public consciousness, this dark part of the town's history could pass on like those who lived through it. But when it comes to cinema, everything is immortal. SUNDOWN '14 isn't flawless (the idea of Pierce Jr coincidentally living on the outskirts of Texarkana all these years is a little too convenient) but it subverts almost all expectations in an era where old-school horror fans usually approach these things, if at all, by preparing for the worst. There isn't a loud music cue or a pointless jump scare to be had and it makes a loud-and-clear statement regarding its stance on "Sparkplug" by completely Jar-Jar Binksing the character to a two-second, non-speaking walk-on. Like a serious SCREAM without the sense of smug self-awareness that its success spawned, and even at times recalling everything from the investigative obsessiveness of David Fincher's ZODIAC (2007), the meta-before-it-was-cool WES CRAVEN'S NEW NIGHTMARE (1994), and the movie vs. reality elements of Bigas Luna's cult oddity ANGUISH (1987), the 2014 revamp of THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is a smart, unnerving, and ferociously uncompromising film that's far better than it has any right or reason to be. It's pretty much an anomaly in today's horror scene. If this was a found-footage remake, you know it would've opened on 3000 screens instead of getting dumped on VOD.

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