While it’s rare for movie remakes to surpass their originals, it’s more rare for documentary-horror style films to get a mulligan—but that’s where the new “Town That Dreaded Sundown” hits a solid home run.
Like Charles B. Pierce’s original 1976 independent, low budget, cult classic work, the new Orion Pictures (MGM) release is based on the five 1946 Phantom related slayings in Texarkana. However, this fictionalization picks up the story more than 65 years after the murders—all the while exploring serial killer copycat possibilities.
Though the new version borrows heavily from Pierce’s previous work, it presents a richer and more intriguing mixture of local history (unique to Texarkana) and horror. The newer version also seems more willing to play off the real facts of the murder cases.
While choosing to follow the copycat story line, the film effectively employs a female high school student as its chief protagonist. She carries the plot line as the one who may hold the ticket to catching the killer.
As the movie’s central character Jami, Addison Jayne Timlin brings a lot more to her role then Neve Campbell did in the series of “Scream” flicks of the mid-to-late 1990s.
While the film uses more veteran motion picture actors such as Edward Herrmann and the late Ed Lauter (as the Bowie County Sheriff), as well as Veronica Cartwright (Jami’s grandmother, Lillian), they don’t necessary add more to the new “Sundown’s” intensity or weight. Both those elements are left up to creative directing along with well researched script writing.
Anthony Anderson skillfully adds some flavor to the role of Texas Ranger Capt. J.D. Morales, portrayed memorably by Ben Johnson in the older film (the fictionalized version of real-life Texas Ranger Capt. M.T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas). While Anderson receives nowhere near the screen time that Johnson did, he nevertheless manages to plug in some authority and flare to the character.
Denis O’Hare delivers a more than worthwhile performance as Charles B Pierce Jr., fictionalized as the somewhat wasted, ragged-out and reclusive son of the late film director. O’Hare’s character adds some extra life to the film’s ending by providing some interesting clues to the copycat killings—such as the final murder allegedly occurring on some railroad tracks north of town.
The film’s conclusion is based on real historical data. A deceased adult male was discovered at about 6 a.m. May, 7,1946, on the Kansas City Southern Railway track, some 16 miles north of Texarkana near Ogden, Ark. He apparently had been killed before being placed there, following a possible knife fight which caused wounds on him not consistent with being struck by a train.
The man, identified as Earl Cliff McSpradden, was described by a relative as being a transient oil storage tank builder. Since McSpradden’s apparent murder also went unsolved, some Texarkana area residents believe the man to either be the Phantom’s sixth victim or the Phantom himself, who committed suicide by jumping in front of a train, hence taking his own life as well as all of what he knew.
The remake’s similar ending is a testament to screenwriter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s considerable research into the documented facts surrounding the slayings.
Beyond Aguirre-Sacasa’s good script writing, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon made exceptional use of lighting and scenic elements for mood creation as well as talented camera angling and scene shooting—both inter-spliced with high speed photography and quick cuts in between both vintage urban Shreveport and Texarkana building locations.
Some of the remake’s more interesting historical connectives include the copycat killer’s mentioning of the name “Mary” to Timlin’s character as he assaults both her and her boyfriend in similar style to the way Mary Jeanne Larey and Jimmy Hollis were attacked just before midnight Feb. 22, 1946. Following the assault, Timlin’s character is seen examining authentic newspaper photos of Larey. Oddly enough, the rural scenery surrounding the filmed assault site looks strikingly close to what the original assault site looks like today, in Texarkana, Texas—near the intersection of Stevenson Street and Richmond Road. However, the actual filming site for this movie was more likely done in the Shreveport area.
The movie also contains a sheriff’s deputy named Tillman, possibly as a spin-off of real life Miller County Chief Deputy Tillman Johnson’s name. Johnson actually served as one of the lead investigators in the true slayings. Add to this the fact that the 2014 “Sundown’s” opening scene is at a drive-in movie theater called the Twin-Star Drive-In. Up until this year, the Twin-Cities screened the original “Sundown” every Thursday before Halloween, inside Spring Lake Park. There, show patrons parked themselves out on a lawn rather than at a drive-in—but the idea is similar.
While the Twin-Cities’ Interstate 30 water tower touts Texarkana as being “Twice as Nice,” the 2014 version of Pierce’s original work, may not necessarily be twice as good—but it certainly strives in that direction.