I’ll admit it: when I first came to this film I didn’t really know what to expect. I didn’t know about the 1946 Texarkana Moonlight Murders or the first 1976 The Town That Dreaded Sundown film. I learned a lot about the Phantom serial killer from the Toronto After Dark introductions and Question and Answer period with the 2014 film’s director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.
It was made clear by Gomez-Rejon himself that The Town That Dreaded Sundown was not strictly a sequel to Charles B. Pierce’s film of the same name. And while I might go as far as to say it is something of a spiritual successor, perhaps the best way to look at it is something of a meta-sequel: not only to Pierce’s film, but the literature of rumours bordering on legend that has surrounded the Moonlight Murders ever since.
It’s not an uncommon phenomenon for elements of history to become something of a legend, or form even the core of a myth: especially when many of the facts still pose a mystery. Jami Lerner, the protagonist of the 2014 film, said something to the effect that this is a story about two towns: or two cities. Texarkana is a town created between the American states of Texas and Arkansas. But then you have the Texarkana that exists in reality and the one depicted in Pierce’s film. And that isn’t even taking into account the Texarkana of small town daylight and morality coexisting next to the Texarkana of moonlight murder, guilt, and collective fear.
You could make a case that Texarkana, as portrayed in Gomez-Rejon’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown is at least four towns if not more: the one from our present reality, the one from the past when the murders happened, the one from Pierce’s movie, and the one being depicted in its latest film narrative. I already knew that there was a mythos being built in this film, but what I didn’t realize was that it was created from reality: crafting from it something of a multifaceted nightmare.
This is a film that, on the surface, appears to be a slasher movie — where sex equals death — with urban legend leanings but underneath the gore and violence it is a psychological thriller steeped in the social and cultural effects that a series of murders had on a town’s collective consciousness and that age-old sense of unsolved mystery. It doesn’t attempt to solve or resolve any of the facts from the Moonlight Murders or even the identity of the Phantom from Pierce’s film. It is not a continuation to the latter’s film and it doesn’t pretend to reveal the truth of the past.
What this film does do, in my opinion, is that it taps into that place where a murderer becomes a myth — and a masked icon on the level of Guy Fawkes — and that myth is less the story of a man who was never found, but rather that of an entire town. As far as Gomez-Rejon’s Phantom is concerned and in the words of another character, everyone in that town “has blood on their hands” and it all has to do with a person named Mary. You get to watch Lerner as she is charged by the Phantom himself to “make everyone remember” what really happened and experience her journalistic journey into old newspaper clippings, hearsay, and meta-narrative: with the threat of the Phantom continuing his killings and terrorism of her as impetus.
Gomez-Rejon is a master of illustrating the resonances of history and fear through the eerie re-enactments of the murders that the Phantom perpetrated both in real life and in the first movie created about him: including one final murder that didn’t make it into the mainstream arts and media coverage. You can see that he has done his research and, like every good storyteller, understands that sometimes the best story is that which has a grain of truth in it while understanding that he has to say something new in order to maintain that balance.
I have to say that this is actually one of my favourite films from the entire festival. It was a nice counterpoint to The Drownsman in that while the latter film attempts to create a new mythos, The Town That Dreaded Sundown not only taps into an older mythos but adds to it and says something very intelligent about fear while maintaining the emotional depth of actual human characters. In addition to having characters that can you relate to with very human reactions that you can sympathize with, this isn’t a film about spectacle and novelty. It reminds you that people actually suffered and died through senseless murders: and while there are those who will exploit this legacy for their own purposes, there are others will continue to seek its truth out. It may well be similar to the reason why Texarkana still shows the first Town That Dreaded Sundown to this very day: out of a sense of respect for the trauma that made a part of history.
In all honesty, for someone who generally doesn’t like horror without supernatural elements I couldn’t recommend this film any higher: a movie about two towns … and more than one form of ghost.