The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014): Return of the Phantom

Poster for The Town That Dreaded Sundown
This 2014 film, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who worked on American Horror Story and Glee before making this debut feature film, with its “return of the phantom from Texarkana” is really more than just a remake of the 1976 film The Town That Dreaded Sundown, it is actually an addendum, if you will. With the film referencing the original and interweaving clips of the 1976 film as well as casting a young actress, Addison Timlin (Derailed, That Awkward Moment) who, in the movie at any rate, is almost a dead ringer for the previous star Dawn Wells, the story is an extension of the first film.

Before going into the premise of the plot, it needs to be mentioned that two of the stellar cast of character actors have shuffled off this mortal coil after appearing in this slasher/mystery. Edward Herrmann (perhaps best known for his “father-figure” vampire in The Lost Boys) and Ed Lauter whose long list of work included the Burt Reynolds cult favorite The Longest Yard as Captain Knauer.

Both the late actors are an example of the high level of experience associated with all the actors involved with this film. The odd choice of Anthony Anderson (Scre4m, Transformers) to portray the Ben Johnson character from the original film was interesting and allowed the actor a chance to play outside his usual range.

In this “remake” the town of Texarkana shows the 1976 film every year around Halloween. *In reality the town really does feature this film as part of their run up to the trick or treat holiday.* While watching the show at what appears to be a make-shift drive-in, two youngsters decide to leave as the girl, Timlin as Jami, is not really enjoying the movie.

The couple drive to a secluded “lover’s lane” and the boy is murdered. Jami is told to make sure “they remember Mary,” and may or may not have been sexually molested. The murders follow the same pattern as the original film’s deaths and also deviates from the real murders just as the first one did.

Texarkana in the mid 1940s did indeed have a serial killer, “who was never caught,” but the “Moonlight Murders” are changed a lot in both films from what really happened. Perhaps the most original part of the film was the decision to make one couple gay, or at least in the beginnings of a gay relationship or one night stand. This move alone seems to be a wink and a nod to Wes Craven and his “rules.”

Denis O’Hare plays the son of the first film’s director, Charles Bryant Pierce (who also directed another cult favorite The Legend of Boggy Creek) died in 2010 and the Arkansas director specialized in making “local” films using the residents of where ever he was shooting. O’Hare, who has the ability to be suitably creepy and damned disturbing regardless of what he is in (American Horror Story for example) knocks it out of the park with his “revelation” later in the film.

This addendum to The Town That Dreaded Sundown, as mentioned above, has a splendid cast, Gary Cole (Pineapple Express, Office Space) and Veronica Cartwright (Alien, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh) round out the familiar faces who bring this tale to life. Perhaps the only drawback to the film was the decision to have Timlin’s character provide a narrative to the film.

Granted the purpose was, it is presumed, to give the new version a sort of documentary as well but it does not work. The “reveal” at the end of the film has been done before, think Wes Craven here, and this lack of originality results in my giving the film a 3 out of 5 stars.

Enjoyable horror hokum based extremely loosely on the real murders years ago and on the original 1976 film. The Town That Dreaded Sundown is on US Netflix at the moment and really is worth the time spent to watch it.

26 May 2015

Michael Knox-Smith

The Lords of Salem (2012): Subtle Zombie

Unknown

Heavy metal impresario Rob Zombie exploded on the movie scene with his first feature film House of a 1000 Corpses in 2003. Already a veteran behind the camera from directing his music videos, his first film (and his second) featured a lot of “heavy metal” montage shots and utilised an almost guerrilla style of film making.

Zombie then went on to re-imagine the Halloween verse in 1 and 2. He next film, he told interviewers, would be a sort of Ken Russell directs The Shining. Far be it from me to argue with Mr Zombie’s own definition of what his film is, but I would argue that it is more like Ken Russell meets Rosemary’s Baby.

I will not go any further down that particular road as I don’t want to give anything away.

Written and directed by Zombie, The Lords of Salem stars Sherri Moon Zombie as Heidi Hawthorne. She is a local radio personality who works as part of a three person team in Salem Massachusetts, home of the infamous Salem witch trials. A wooden box is left for Heidi at the radio station’s reception desk. It contains a record by a group called The Lords.

When the record is played on the air, it affects the female listeners of the audience, causing them to have visions of the olden days in Salem. Heidi is very affected by the music (which, for the record, would never have been featured on American Bandstand) and after she’s heard the music her landlady invites her to meet two old friends.

The film was obviously shot on location in Salem as the statue of television’s Bewitched character  Samantha Stevens (aka Elizabeth Montgomery) can be seen no less that three times. It’s as if Zombie wants to remind us that this is really about “fake” witches in Salem.

Zombie's cinematography made Samantha Stevens look a lot scarier in the film.
Zombie’s cinematography made Samantha Stevens look a lot scarier in the film.

Besides this reminder running through the film, a lot of black and white films play in the background in a few scenes. Heidi is watching an old “cop” film (featuring that loveable old heavy Jack Elam) and later when her boyfriend/radio partner Whitey  (Jeff Daniel Phillips) is watching a film, he is watching something with Charles Laughton (better known as Captain Bligh and Quasimodo).

There is, in fact, a lot of black and white themed sets in the film and Heidi’s apartment features a lot of black and white pictures and patterns. I’m not clever enough to know what the director is aiming for with this preoccupation with this particular colour scheme, but it’s obviously a clue of what is happening in the film. Perhaps it’s yet another allusion to the “olden days?”

The character of Heidi is a good one for Sherri Moon Zombie and she adds a depth to her acting that hasn’t been seen before. The film has a lot of Zombie’s “stable” in it. Sid Haig, Michael Berryman and Ken Foree are all Zombie “regulars.” The film also boasts the legendary Dee Wallace, Judy Geeson and Meg Foster. Most of his films feature a cadre of genre stars from old horror movies.

Quinn, Wallace and Geeson, Three scary ladies.
Quinn, Wallace and Geeson, Three scary ladies.

It was nice to see Andrew Prine  after he had to step in for the late Richard Lynch due to health issues.

Zombie has hit a level of subtlety that has, till now, been missing in his films. Where he has relied on over-the-top violence, blood and gore with villains that came close to being almost cartoonish; Salem strikes a sly and almost underrated  performance from all the key players.

A quick shout out to Bruce Davison as local Author Francis Matthias. He shines in his short performance and it was a pleasure to watch him in the film.

All the actors delivered exceedingly well and although the film had a bit of an ambiguous ending (to me at least) it kept me glued to the screen until the end credits had finished.

This may not appeal to the “normal” Rob Zombie fan. If you are expecting his usual fare of Heavy Metal Horror, you’ll be disappointed. But if you are ready to see a Rob Zombie who’s learned the art of insinuation and easing his audience gradually into the horror at hand, you’ll enjoy this latest effort.

I’d have to give The Lords of Salem a solid 4.5 out of 5 stars. I’ve taken the .5 off only because the ending left me a little baffled. Despite my shaving off a half point, I don’t doubt that this will become a cult favourite.

Bravo, Rob Zombie.

Rob Zombie.
Rob Zombie.