Film Review: The Town That Dreaded Sundown

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Originally published on The National Student on 10/03/15. 

2-stars

Recent Sundance favourite and American Horror Story veteran Alfonso Gomez-Rejon takes his first leap to the big screen with this delayed and bizarrely abstract re-imagining of a cult 70s slasher hit. 

Under the guise of a wandering docu-drama, Rejon’s present day update of The Town That Dreaded Sundown returns to the small border town of Texarkana, in a world very close to our own where the original film exists as a work of fiction.

Following the sudden murder of a high-school football hopeful, the town falls into lockdown as the masked Phantom killer returns, reaping violence and misery in his wake. But when Jami (Addison Timlin) – a survivor of one of the Phantom’s seemingly random attacks – begins digging deeper into the killer’s history, certain parallels become clear and the town’s citizens seemingly draw ever closer to finally revealing his true identity and stopping his diabolical deeds for good. 

Although very obviously a slasher film at its core, Rejon’s Sundown suffers a great deal from its straight-up refusal to accept such a label. Instead, it floats lifelessly between cheap horror and rebellious, artsy satire, never once conquering either. The standard slasher conventions are all still in play, they’re just presented in unnecessarily complex ways, meaning the low-rent scares and ultra-bloody stand-offs land to no real effect.

Rejon’s more creative visual style actually proves to be somewhat refreshing towards the beginning, but ultimately ends up feeling incredibly out of place. Everything either sits at a slightly slanted angle or is chased madly by the camera in constant looping circles, which, although sensationally irritating at times, isn’t specifically what derails the terror. The deafening blow is actually Rejon’s simple lack of consistency. It feels almost as if the director has used Sundown as his own personal sizzle reel: 80 minutes of cramming in absolutely every visual nuance he’s capable of, but with no real specific reason to any of it. 

This isn’t to say that the film is completely bereft of enjoyment however. The violence, despite being haphazardly slotted into the narrative in random chunks, actually lands well, showing off a fierce brutality that few modern horrors manage to achieve. As expected there’s also the standard sprinkling of jump-scares, but these never appear false and prove to be surprisingly effective, if a little obvious in their approach. Even the cast deserve some sense of praise, dragging out a stale “whodunnit” tale with the sort of grace and emotional focus that would come to be expected from something far more high-end. 

Eventually though, one has to see Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s update of The Town That Dreaded Sundown for exactly what it is – a failed experiment. Rejon’s pursuit of something more substantial than a low-grade Scream-clone is somewhat commendable, but his heavy-handed attempts at dragging the cheap small-town slasher into the art-house market ultimately result in failure. 

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014), directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, is released in the UK by Metrodome, Certificate 15. 

 

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