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His Blazing Automatics: The Postmodern Horror of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s ‘The Town That Dreaded Sundown’

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His Blazing Automatics is a Vague Visages column by Dylan Moses Griffin.

Before director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon made a splash at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival with his teen cancer drama Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, he made a little-seen remake of an also little-seen cult film, The Town that Dreaded Sundown. An unlikely genre success, and a grisly and gory work of postmodern horror, the film perforates the lines between “cinema” and “actuality.”

The Charles B. Pierce original, made in 1976, functions as a unique cross between a slasher film and a procedural crime thriller. It’s based on the true series of 1946 Texarkana killings (and the subsequent investigation) while juggling two intentions: paying respect to both the memory of the dead and to slasher audiences. Gomez-Rejon takes cinematic liberties with the iconic death-by-knife via trombone, or the comic relief of an inept officer, but he ultimately had to tie the film to some semblance of actuality.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

Gomez-Rejon embraces the concept of blending fact and fiction for cinematic purposes in he Town that Dreaded Sundown, but he goes a step further. The remake exists in a curious state of flux, intersecting between meta postmodernism, actuality and cinematic fiction. It feels somewhat inaccurate to call the 2014 version just a remake, because it functions as a sequel set far outside of the bounds of the original. Gomez-Rejon sets the film firmly in our present reality, making Pierce’s production an integral piece of the plot. The remake begins with the annual Halloween screening of the 1976 film, and when the protagonist Jami escapes from the killer’s opening attack, she stumbles into the screening, where actuality and the film’s reality intersect for the first time.

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The Town that Dreaded Sundown fills itself with winks to Pierce’s film. Many of the murders cinematically resemble those of the original: a lover’s lane kill setting, a cornfield chase and the knife-taped-to-a-trombone murder, but in the last scenario, Gomez-Rejon cuts between his footage and the footage of the 1976 film to merge the original’s reality with the present. The Texas Rangers assigned to the investigation in both films share the last name of Morales, another example of the remake nodding to the original. In the 2014 version, Morales even watches the original film at one point for research (and a little fun). Gomez-Rejon even has Charles B. Pierce Jr., the son of the original film’s director, as a character played by Denis O’Hare, who presents his own theories as to who the modern day killer might be. It’s a bold move to merge the two films together, and it pays off. Impressively, the 2014 film never tries to solve who the original murderer was, but only the case of the modern day killer, one with a past tied to the aftermath of the 1946 killings.

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Gomez-Rejon approaches postmodern horror filmmaking in the same way that horror auteur Ti West does by repeatedly setting up familiar, stereotypical situations and then changing them ever so slightly — for a fresh take and to dodge expectation. For example, a reunited couple has sex in a hotel room. Given the genre, you know that such a scenario isn’t going to end well. The man leaves the room to get ice and cookies from the vending machine, while the woman pulls out two glasses of champagne and a wedding ring, preparing to propose. They are going to die, but what’s interesting is that the roles have been reversed in regard to who dies first in horror films and traditional proposal ethics. In another scene, a young couple drives to an abandoned area of town to have a romantic moment. Naturally, they’re going to die, but what’s interesting is that said couple consists of two young, homosexual men, and they discuss how they’re going to hook up since this will be the first time for the both of them. It feels oddly progressive to see a homosexual couple in a horror film (rather than a heterosexual pair), even if it means certain death by knife-trombone. The deaths are predictable, but the presentation offers a fresh take on genre standards.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown is the rare remake that is original in its construction, technique and the way the director interacts with a previous film’s reality to bleed into our reality. Hopefully, Gomez-Rejon’s film will garner the cult status of its predecessor.

Dylan Moses Griffin has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.

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