I was ten years old when I saw SCREAM, Wes Craven’s love letter to the genre that helped define his career. I was already obsessed with some of his earlier work like A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, but at this point I had to yet to witness characters who were self-aware and movie smart. It was with SCREAM that I discover that there was a whole history of horror cinema waiting for me to discover with everyone spitting out references alien to me. I used to think there really was a werewolf movie that featured E.T’s mother and it took me years to realize what they meant. There’s a scene in SCREAM where Rose McGowan and Neve Campbell are walking in town after some of the murders and notice the streets empty. It’s with this observation that McGowan remarks, “it’s like THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN.” I initially thought this was just a phrase of some sort, but learned via browsing the horror section at my local video store that this was a legit movie. Like many movies of its time, the title was vague and drew my interest. What was it this town was so afraid of at night? Was there a monster who can’t be in the sun? Was there some mist that takes over at night? Little did I know that this town was afraid of something that was all too real.
In 1976, director Charles Pierce released his cult classic in theaters and continued to play in drive ins and annual screenings in Texarkana, Texas where the film takes place. Mere months after World War II, a series of murders plagued Texarkana. It all begins on a lovers’ lane where a man with a bag over his head attacks a young couple. More attacks occur and the town reacts in panic by setting up decoys on prom night and buying out all the guns in town. One of these attacks involves the film most famous scene in which the killer (known as the Phantom Killer) attaches a knife to the end of a trombone and proceeds to stab a woman in the back while she’s tied to a tree. It’s as gruesome as it sounds and Pierce doesn’t shy away from the shock value. Theories are tossed around as to who the Phantom Killer is and how he attacks, but, in the end, these prove useless. There are some lucky survivors, but a failed chase leads to the killer escaping and the murders end.
Filming of THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN started in the summer of 1976 and locations included Texarkana itself. Real life survivor Katie Starks refused to participate in the making of the movie, despite actress Dawn Wells’ persistence. The script itself is said to not have had an ending, so actor Andrew Prine wrote it himself. The advertising proved controversial with its tagline on the poster “In 1946, this man killed five people… today he still lurks the streets of Texarkana, Ark.” It posed as a discomfort to the locals and threat of a lawsuit caused the last part of the tagline to be removed from future advertisements. The offbeat nature of the film helped catapult it to cult status. While there are the dramatized violent versions of the real crimes, these are transitioned with comic relief with some silly bantering between law officials. Some might find it cringe worthy, but the fans love it and are the reasons why the film continues to play at drive ins and late night screenings. Unfortunately, a teen in 1978 also claimed the film inspired him to shoot and kill one of his friends. Other lawsuits followed by relatives of those involved in the real life murders, but mainly failed.
In terms of its basis on the real-life killer, the movie really ups the ante in terms of the death sequences. There is no trombone-related stabbing, and the relationships between the victims were altered for creative purposes. The town really did live in fear, locking themselves in home at night with businesses losing their evening customers. Evidence would be spotted, but proved pointless like the flashlight found at a murder scene with no finger prints. Almost 400 suspects were arrested throughout the investigations. There was a rumor of a man whose body was found on railroad tracks 16 miles north of Texarkana was possibly the sixth victim or even the killer himself who killed himself. The movie is accurate that the case was never resolved. In a rather sadistic twist, THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is shown as a free event in the town every October. This strange tradition is utilized in the meta-remake that was released in 2014.
In director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, it’s 2013 and a young couple gets attacked during a screening of the Pierce original. The boyfriend dies, but the girl, Jami (Addison Timlin giving her best Jill Schoelen), survives and decides to investigate the killer herself. Her theories lead her to the son of Charles Pierce who fills her in on the behind the scenes drama of the original film. This includes the unreported death of a sixth victim and that a descendant of that victim might be the new killer. That proves to be true when one of the deputies (played by Joshua Leonard of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT) turns out to be that very relative and is responsible for the murders along with Jami’s boyfriend who faked his own death. Jami manages to escape, deputy gets killed, but her boyfriend is still out there.
The remake really blurs the lines and takes meta to a whole new level. Explaining what this pseudo remake is about is a bit of a task especially, since it comes out to be primarily another slasher flick that’s difficult to differentiate from others. There’s some great nods to the original as the new killer reenacts some of the famous scenes, including the trombone to off one half of a young gay couple. Many of the scenes are intercut with shots from the original, sure to give a rise out of the hardcore fans. This version also shot some of its sequences in Texarkana. Lots of buzz surround it in the horror community, especially with producer Ryan Murphy involved after his huge success with AMERICAN HORROR STORY, but for some reason had to settle for a straight-to-VOD release.
Whatever one’s opinion is of the 2014 release, the film has to be recognized for its original take on the remake subgenre. It’s hard to come up with a compare/contrast piece on these two and what’s done right, since it’s not technically a remake. However, it’s unique in what it has to offer, and can help introduce new fans to the original. It serves as an excellent double-feature and conversation piece over drinks with friends.