Released just two years after Bob Clark’s Black Christmas and two years before John Carpenter’s Halloween, The Legend Of Boggy Creek director Charles B. Pierce’s 1976 proto-slasher movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown has been all but forgotten these days, ignored, the redheaded stepchild at the psycho-killer party.

Based (very loosely) on the 1946 Texarkana Moonlight Murders, a series of still unsolved attacks upon mostly courting couples that left five dead (a further three victims survived), the original The Town That Dreaded Sundown was an influential exploitation classic. Chronicling the masked Phantom’s reign of terror and the ultimately unsuccessful hunt for him, its DNA can be glimpsed in virtually every slasher movie since and with the trend for relatively toothless retreads of gory ‘70s classics like The Last House On The Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Town That Dreaded Sundown looked ripe for a PG-13 remake.

But instead producers Ryan Murphy (Glee & American Horror Story) and Jason Blum (Paranormal Activity & Insidious) and debut feature director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (American Horror Story) have produced something far more ambitious; a refreshingly smug-free exercise in meta-filmmaking that’s more a smart, sly, self-aware homage, a copycat rather than a more traditional remake or sequel, using the now traditional Halloween tribute screening of Pierce’s original film in Texarkana’s Spring Lake Park as a jumping off point for a fresh set of murders.

Sneaking away early from the screening that’s their first date, Jami (Addison Timlin) and Corey (Spencer Treat Clark) park up in a secluded area to get to know each other a little better, talking and making out until the already jumpy Jami spots a peeping tom in the woods dressed as the movie’s Phantom Killer who viciously attacks them, butchering Corey and chasing Jami through the woods, catching her, telling her “This is for Mary. Make them remember.” before inexplicably releasing her and disappearing back into the woods.

As more murders occur, the new Phantom recreating the killings depicted in the original film (including the infamous trombone murder) and legendary Texas Ranger Lone Wolf Morales (Anthony Anderson) arrives in town to take over the investigation from the out-of-their-depth local cops (Ed Lauter, Joshua Foster & Gary Cole), fledgling writer Jami, aided by ex-classmate and librarian Nick (Travis Tope), launches her own investigation, uncovering links between the original murders, Pierce’s film and a dark 60-year secret that may have inspired the copycat killer. But who is Mary? And with the killer stalking her, can Jami escape his clutches twice?

Stylish, thoughtful and boldly ambitious, you don’t have to have seen Pierce’s film to enjoy Murphy, Blum and Gomez-Rejon’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown but why deny yourself the pleasure of its many nods to the original movie, perhaps the best being the first thing Anthony Anderson’s swaggering Texas Ranger (a role essayed in the original by Ben Johnson and directly based on the legendary lawman who led real the investigation) does upon arriving in town is to screen Pierce’s film to try and get a jump on the killer, while there’s also numerous sly winks to other classic slasher films not least Wes Craven’s Scream.

While American Horror Story director makes a confident, visually assured, energetically stylish debut, the film’s creative driving force is undoubtedly producer Ryan Murphy. Something of a horror nut, Murphy brings a fanboy’s love of the genre to the movie, peopling The Town That Dreaded Sundown with iconic actors like Ed Lauter and Gary Cole as the local sheriffs, Edward Herrmann as an opportunistic minister and Veronica Cartwright as Jami’s grandmother while reserving a juicy pivotal role for American Horror Story and True Blood regular Denis O’Hare as the (fictional) alcoholic son of Charles B. Pierce providing vital clues to Addison Timlin’s Jami who makes for a plucky Final Girl.

It may not be the groundbreaker that The Cabin In the Woods was but Murphy, Blum and Gomez-Rejon have crafted a smart, fun, GLEE-fully nasty, slice ‘n’ dice meta-horror in The Town That Dreaded Sundown that’s confident enough to credit its audience with at least as much intelligence as its filmmakers. In their most lurid nightmares, Tarantino and Rodriguez wish their grindhouse wannabees were half as good as this intelligent, exhilirating tribute to a ’70s exploitation classic.

DVD Review: The Town That Dreaded Sundown
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