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Fantastic Fest capsule: The Town That Dreaded Sundown

Staff Writer
Austin 360

In 1976, a low-budget horror film called “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” fictionalized an actual murder spree by a man simply known as the Phantom Killer that occurred in Texarkana.

For three months back in 1946, he targeted young lovers and shocked the local residents who had never previously even bothered to lock their doors. In this meta reboot, residents from both sides of the state line have gathered at a drive-in theater (that only has one projector on a ladder in the middle of the parking lot, making reel changes a little tough, but I digress) on Halloween to watch the movie. Jami (Addison Timlin) has gone to see it with her boyfriend Corey (Spencer Treat Clark), but they leave in the middle of the film because she really doesn’t like scary movies. He convinces her that they should head out to “lovers lane,” zooming right past the sign forbidding entry after dark.

Shortly after they start making out, Jami notices a man dressed as the Phantom spying on them from the woods. Before they have a chance to pull away, the Phantom brutally attacks Corey but spares Jami’s life. This conveniently allows her the opportunity to investigate the original murders, spending her spare time in the city hall archives where a quiet boy named Nick (Travis Tope) shows her how to read old newspaper articles on microfiche and, inexplicably, is able to give her access to the actual police reports complete with crime scene photographs.

This remake continually references the original film, although in what is likely a deviation, this time around Jami gets an email from the Phantom. Even though it feels strange to say that this feels like progress for a mainstream horror film, one of the other major changes from the original is that an elaborate murder sequence finds the Phantom attacking two teenage boys who have parked their car to engage in a sexual encounter.

This is the feature-length debut film from Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who has previously directed episodes of “Glee” and “American Horror Story.” That got Ryan Murphy involved as a producer, who also roped in Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions (“Paranormal Activity”). As a result, the production values far exceed the film’s limited budget with well-placed music cues, creative visuals and decent gore effects.

Texans may take offense, but the majority of the film was actually shot in Louisiana thanks to tax credits for the production, but a few key moments were actually filmed in Texarkana. Primarily existing for an audience who are too young to be familiar with the original film, “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” doesn’t break any new ground but should fit the bill for October audiences looking for a good scare this fall.

“The Town That Dreaded Sundown” screens again at 2:45 p.m. Sept. 24.