Writer: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Earl E. Smith (1976 version)
Cast: Addison Timlin, Anthony Anderson, Travis Tope, Veronica Cartwright, Gary Cole, Edward Herrmann
Running time: 84mins
The lowdown: Slasher horror gets a bloody enjoyable makeover in American Horror Story co-creator Gomez-Rejon’s do-over of the 1976 original. Nicely balanced between black comedy suspense and guffaw gore, it also cannily blends the actual, unsolved 1940s murders that inspired the first film, that film itself and a modern day detective plot for fun thrills. There’s life in the unkillable slasher yet.
The full verdict: If you want to remake a slasher movie, you’re always better off avoiding the household names. Tackling Jason, Freddy or Michael Myers will get you a fanbase evisceration that would make Leatherface wince.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon treads safer ground riffing on 70s shocker The Town That Dreaded Sundown, unavailable on video since 1987 and yet to see the light of a DVD release (*cough*, it’s on YouTube though).
That film was based on a series of unsolved killings in 1940s on the Texas-Arkansas border and introduced the chilling, sack hooded figure the Phantom Killer, a remorseless psycho foreshadowing the Zodiac or Son of Sam killers.
Gomez-Rejon and writer Aguirre-Sacasa (doing much better work here than on that woeful Carrie remake) set their film in a world where the 1976 movie exists, basing the action in the town where the original murders occurred and where the film is an ugly reminder of what they would rather see forgotten.
This allows for smart New Nightmare/Scream style meta-mayhem as things get messily self-referential and killings from the earlier film inspire the carnage here (example: the trombone that hits a bad note).
Addison Timlin is a likeable lead as Jami, left alive to tell the town the Phantom Killer has returned after her boyfriend is brutally slain. The killer is back to clean up the dusty ‘burb again, but who is he?
A bogeyman over 60 years old? A copycat? One of the many suspects the film gleefully plays shady – gruff lawman Gary Cole, suspicious pastor Edward Herrmann, Travis Tope as Jami’s geeky friend helping her Nancy Drew the murders herself?
The ever-welcome Veronica Cartwright provides tremulous charm as Jami’s grandmother, while Anthony Anderson’s comic riff on Forest Whitaker intensity as US Marshall Lone Wolf Morales ups the laugh quotient.
But, Gomez-Rejon is the film’s real star. Inspired by John Carpenter’s prowling, widescreen scares, the director keeps the jolts bouncy even when serving up gasp aloud grue (keep a look out for the below-the-knee trauma).
Leaps through time are executed in clever, apparently single take shots, while even an afternoon chat in a caravan with the son of the original film’s director carries a throb of menace.
Things settle into familiarity come the chase-through-derelict-buildings climax and the killer’s unmasking doesn’t pack the punch it should. But, those who like their shivers served up with a spattering of grey matter should leave with a sunny of disposition.