Today’s athletes are faster and stronger than any that have ever lived. Today’s medicines can cure diseases in a day that used to be death sentences. Today’s cars are more fuel efficient and offer features that drivers in days gone by could not even have imagined. So why aren’t our movies better?
I’m not saying all old films were great. They weren’t. I’m not saying all modern films suck. They don’t. But we’ve been making motion pictures for well over a century. We are into our fifth and even sixth generation of humanity who has grown up with this art form. Yet there are many aspects of cinema which are noticeably worse than in the past. How is that possible?
That is the subject this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Remake Throwdown will examine as we pit a 1970s drive up flick that is better remembered than it deserves against a 21st century retelling that has no excuse for being as bad as it is. It’s “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” (1978) vs. “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” (2014) in an attempt to answer the question, is the trouble with Hollywood in our stars or in ourselves?
“The Town That Dreaded Sundown” (1976) is one of the earliest entries into what is now known as the slasher subgenre of horror films. Based on the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, a string of killings in 1946 in and around the Texas/Arkansas border community, the film purports to be a factually based docudrama. Of course, it does take a few liberties but is surprisingly faithful to events. It concerns a hooded killer dubbed “The Phantom” who attacks young couples over the course of several months, the law enforcement effort to catch him and the effect the murders have on the people of Texarkana.
Despite being a box office success and quite influential to the genre movies that followed it, the plain and simple truth is “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” (1976) is not very good. Much of it is pretty terrible, in fact. The direction and camera work are pedestrian at best. The performances consist almost entirely of unexceptional work done by professionals and legitimately awful stuff from untrained locals who were given parts in the film for reasons that defy all human understanding. A decent chunk of the movie sounds like it was recorded using two tin cans and a string. The plot is regularly interrupted by grating scenes of comic relief that were written and shot by people who must have had their funny bones surgically removed at birth. And running through the whole thing is some of the most lifeless and laziest narration you’ll ever encounter in any flick. There’s literally nothing it tells the viewer that couldn’t and shouldn’t have been conveyed through the words and actions of the characters on screen.
So why did quite a few people enjoy this thing back in 1976 and how did it come to help forge a template that scores of later films would slavishly follow?
- A great performance by Bud Davis as “The Phantom.” It’s a bit unusual to heap praise on an actor who never speaks and spends the entire movie with a sack over his head, but Davis does an excellent job. His movements, particularly these quick jerks of his head, convey an intensity and anxiousness that draws the viewer in. “The Phantom” looks like he really, really, REALLY wants to kills his victims and the audience can’t help but wonder about why. What is motivating him? What made him this way? It establishes an emotional connection to what is happening on screen and when we constantly see the sack mask move in and out as “The Phantom” breathes, it emphasizes the humanity of the killer and the reality of what he does. And when the camera focuses in on one of Davis’ eyes, the wide and unblinking orb looks genuinely frenzied.
- Some legitimately shocking moments. The attacks of “The Phantom” are all well staged and, while not very gory by modern standards, use violence in a very compelling way and the relatively unsophisticated camera work keeps your concentration on what is happening on screen and not how cleverly it’s being presented. An attack involving a trombone as a murder weapon is still a bit unnerving now, which means it had to hit people like a thunderbolt back in 1976. And “The Phantom’s” use of a gun as a weapon has only become fresher and more novel after decades of horror movie villains who seem to have forgotten that gunpowder exists.
- The story is well structured. After every attack, there’s a greater and greater response from law enforcement and more fear and paranoia from the general public until the tension explodes with another appearance of “The Phantom.” And the film is very smart in escalating the violence throughout the story. He doesn’t actually kill his first victims, then we only find the bodies of the next ones. With the third attack, we witness the killings and the final murders crank up the action to another level as “The Phantom” crashes into the victims’ home and chases a woman with a pickax. One of the cardinal sins of modern horror flicks is that things get as bad as they can get in the first half hour and there’s nowhere to go after that.
- It was a subject matter rarely brought up and presented in a way that was rarely seen. It’s hard to imagine it but when director Charles B. Pierce made “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” (1976), you couldn’t see a movie just like it on every other cable channel or stream a score of them on your phone. There weren’t a lot of these films to see and the ones that were made might play for a week or two at your local drive-in before disappearing and never being seen again. It created the sense that these movies were special and gave them a power that the common, ever present mainstream flicks couldn’t match, even though most of them were much better made.
And “much better made” is a good description of “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” (2014). It looks better, sounds better and is in most respects better performed. How then did it wind up an afterthought when people are still watching the original 40 years later? Just wait.
This remake has one of the best premises I’ve ever heard of as it starts with a showing of the original in 2014 Texarkana. Young high schooler Jami (Addison Timlin), who doesn’t actually ever go to school, slips away from the drive in with her sort-of boyfriend, Corey (Spencer Treat Clark). They park his car out in the woods and prepare to get schwifty when someone who looks exactly like “The Phantom” shows up. He kills Corey and brutalizes Jami in some non-specific way, telling her “This is for Mary. Make them remember.” Jami crawls back to the drive in and essentially the original story starts over, with the added subplot of Jami’s efforts to discover the identity of the new killer.
A remake that not only acknowledges the existence of the original movie but incorporates into its story? That’s pretty clever. Sadly, that entirely exhausted the brainpower of the filmmakers because the rest of the film is just a narrative mess.
It’s a great looking mess, though. This thing is shot and edited so well and so stylishly that it makes the already remedial original look like a crude cave painting. There’s more skill and craft put into any individual scene in “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” (2014) than went into the entire 1976 version. Everything about it, from the lighting to the sound to the acting, it so technically superior to its predecessor that it’s almost like two entirely different mediums.
The problem is that while the remake looks and sounds so good, it also looks and sounds like any other movie you see nowadays. Every movie looks good. Every movie sounds good. Every scene is well staged. Every set is well designed. Every movie has talented actors, at least compared to some of the dreck who made it on screen in the past. But because of that, our expectations have risen so high that it is almost impossible for a movie to have any visual impact. It’s the more primitive filmmaking of “The Town that Dreaded Sundown” (1976) that actually stands out today because it doesn’t look like everything else you see.
The fact that audiences have become jaded to great filmmaking, however, wouldn’t matter if there’s also great storytelling at work in a motion picture. “Great” is not a word I would use for the storytelling in “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” (2014). I would use words like….
A mix of undeserved post-modern pretention and bored self-indulgence.
To start with, the film is a complete failure when it comes to building tension. It’s murders…and then nothing happens. More murders…and then nothing happens. Still more murders…and still nothing happens. Screenwriter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon don’t seem to have the slightest idea how to imbue their creation with any energy or sense of forward momentum and they can’t even approximate causality, where things that happen then lead to other things happening. For example, nothing law enforcement does in the remake has any effect on the plot. Nothing Jami does in her search for “The Phantom” has any effect on the plot. The solution to the mystery is literally just plopped down by a supporting character and it is the most aggravatingly stupid coincidence I think I’ve ever seen in any film, and the solution is then one of the stupidest stories I’ve ever seen a movie try to get away with.
You can’t truly understand how dumb it is without my spoiling it for you, so here it is. Charles B. Pierce, Jr. (Denis O’Hare), the son of the director of the original who just happens to live in Texarkana, tells Jami that there was another victim of “The Phantom” back in 1946 that was never mentioned in any of the police reports or news stories in 1946, and even though his father found out about it he didn’t include that death in the original. It is the grandson of that forgotten victim that is killing everyone today. Why was he forgotten? See if you can follow this. Texarkana has two police forces, one for the Texas side and one for the Arkansas side. One of the police forces in 1946 had a suspect for the murders but the other police force found a victim that couldn’t have been the work of that suspect, so everybody just decided to forget about it. I’m not kidding. Both police forces just decided to not investigate this other killing. The local media just decided to not do a story about a dismembered body found in town. Charles B. Pierce just decided not to add this remarkable detail to his film. And they all decided to do that even though the movie explicitly states that the family of the forgotten victim raised holy hell about his omission.
“The Town That Dreaded Sundown” (2014) passes over this idiotic explanation extremely quickly, as though the filmmakers realized themselves how nonsensical it was, but to the extent the movie was building to anything (and it really doesn’t), it was building to that revelation.
And. It. Makes. No. Sense.
Then, as if they’re trying to make up for that, they decide to tack on a second killer with an even dumber motivation in a big reveal that is a blatant rip off of “Scream” (1996).
I am not exaggerating when I say “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” (2014) is 86 minutes long and the middle 70 minutes of it is essentially meaningless filler. The reason why that’s so is the reason why modern movies can be such vast improvements in so many ways compared to cinema of the past and still stink on ice.
Nobody wants to tell a whole story anymore, they just want to get to the good bits. They all want to write that amazing scene no one can forget, but they don’t comprehend that what makes a scene memorable is all the things that lead up to it. They want the punch line without the set up. They want the punch without the wind up. Everyone wants to write a clever line but no one wants to do the dumb monkey work of establishing all the stuff that makes that clever line mean something. At the end, this remake tries to pretend that what it’s been about is how Jami and this other character have been forced to play certain roles because of where they grew up and they have to break free and become the people they really are…but I swear to Bob there is zip, zero, zilch, NOTHING in the film that supports, informs or leads to that supposed point. They simply pull it out of their nether regions.
“The Town That Dreaded Sundown” (1976) wins this Throwdown because it tells a story. It’s not a particularly great story and it’s not told particularly well, but it does get told. Stuff that happens in the beginning leads to stuff that happens in the middle and that leads to stuff that happens at the end. Add in a few solid shocks and the allure of the infrequent and you wind up with a motion picture that made a lasting impact. And if Hollywood is going to remain terrified of creating anything new, this is exactly the sort of film they should remake. If you’re not willing or able to actually tell a story, however, it won’t matter how much you can improve the direction, special effects, lighting or production values. You just wind up with a waste of everyone’s time like “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” (2014).
The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)
Written by Earl E. Smith.
Directed by Charles B. Pierce.
Starring Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Dawn Wells, Jimmy Clem, Jim Citty, Charles B. Pierce, Robert Aquino, Christine Ellsworth, Earl E. Smith, Steve Lyons, Joe Catalanotto, Roy Lee Brown, Mike Hackworth, Misty West, Rick Hildreth, Vern Stierman and Bud Davis.
The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014)
Written by Robert Aquirre-Sacasa.
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.
Starring Addison Timlin, Veronica Cartwright, Anthony Anderson, Travis Tope, Joshua Leonard, Andy Abele, Gary Cole, Edward Herrmann, Ed Lauter, Arabella Field, Denis O’Hare, Spence Treat Clark, West Chatham, Morganna Bridgers and Geraldine Singer.