Another in my sporadic series of interviews with indie horror directors. This one’s with Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, regarding his clever remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Originally published on the Empire website.
Released in 1976, Charles B. Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown is an unusual period-set slasher movie, loosely based on real events surrounding a series of murders by the never-apprehended “Phantom Killer” in the 1940s. A modern remake might have seemed a dismal prospect: another in a long line of unimaginative slasher rehashes. But in the hands of director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and screenwriter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, it’s something altogether more interesting, using both the true-crime inspiration and the original Sundown to explore history and memory in a town that’s been forever defined by a movie that distorted the facts. It’s still a horror film, but it’s probably not the one you think it is. We caught up with Gomez-Rejon and got him to talk us through it.
Was The Town That Dreaded Sundown a film you had always wanted to revisit, or was the project brought to you?
I was directing the second season of American Horror Story and I bumped into Ryan Murphy on the Paramount lot. He said he had this idea for something I might want to direct, and we went to his office and I read the screenplay [by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa] for this project he had already developed, which turned out to be The Town That Dreaded Sundown. I didn’t know the original film, so I went online and ordered a VHS of it, which was the only thing I could find. I pulled out my old VHS machine from the closet and watched it, and then I fully understood how this new version wasn’t really a remake at all, but something that was referencing the original quite differently. The key idea that I fell in love with was this town that’s been defined by a movie. I wanted to explore that.
I went to Texarkana and talked to a lot of police officers that were on the scene, and surviving friends of the victims that were still there. In the movie, for instance, one of the characters was made out to be this floozy waitress kind of person, whereas in reality the real victim was an honour student. The memories of the real victims have vanished, but the film is there forever. That’s incredibly painful for the real community, so to explore that via a character who’s angry and wanting to remind people of the truth… I thought that was fascinating.
Obviously I assumed my first film as a director was going to be Citizen Kane, but I was never able to get my serious films off the ground, and Ryan said, “Look, you could have a lot of fun with this and do anything you want”. Martin Scorsese is my hero, and he started with Boxcar Bertha. Lots of the great directors of the ‘70s started with those Roger Corman films. So I approached it along those lines. I loved that it wasn’t really a remake: it was an homage to the original film, and I could even intercut the original into my film and then re-match the crimes and look back to the ‘original’ murders that supposedly inspired that first film, and the real pain they left behind that the film ignored.
You recreated the infamous scene from the first film where someone gets stabbed with a trombone. Do you think that would have worked without that original context to explain it?
(Laughs) I knew we had to do it, but it’s just so weird! Knowing laughter is part of the genre, but I didn’t want it to get unintentional laughs, or the wrong kind of laughs. I thought we’d have to make it quite violent and hold the shot quite long to have the nervous laughter subside. I think it works, because it’s questioning whether the killer is mimicking the movie, or if he’s mimicking the murders that inspired the movie to set the record straight.
With this and American Horror Story you kind of look like ‘a horror guy’ at the moment. Is that not really the case?
Before American Horror Story I was directing Glee and I was “the musical guy”. Before that I was Scorsese’s assistant, so I was ‘the mob guy’! But I think all good directors explore different genres. I knew going into this film that I’d be seen as a horror guy, but I wanted to embrace the genre and have fun with it anyway. My next film, Me & Earl & The Dying Girl is completely different and much more personal. But it’s fun to dabble and learn in different genres. Horror isn’t entirely me – I’m certainly not an expert – but it’s certainly a part of me.
My collaborator (cinematographer) Michael Goi is obsessed with obscure slasher films of every country of origin. He made me watch a lot of very bizarre things in the name of research. There was a film I discovered called Tourist Trap, which actually inspired a sequence in The Town That Dreaded Sundown that we never shot. It has this scene with mannequins that’s one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever seen. But it’s also so incredibly well composed: very artfully shot and directed. I had this idea of doing a chase in our film where the characters were running through all these abandoned five and dime stores to get away from the killer, and we’d dress all these mannequins and have it inspired by Tourist Trap, but sadly we ran out of time. It was probably for the best!
Did you actually like the original Town That Dreaded Sundown, or were you just watching it with a view to how you were going to use it?
That’s a great question. I mean, I like to see the good in everything… It’s an unusual film, but I didn’t find it particularly scary, and I was unprepared for how much of a docudrama it was, with all the narration. I thought the iconography was quite scary in certain sequences, particularly the ones set at night. Those are certainly memorable. I think the scene at the end which takes place in broad daylight works less well. I could see how if you saw it at the time, as a teenager or whatever, it could stay with you. I have friends from Texas whose parents were quite haunted by that movie, because it happened on their turf. So I think it’s a good film. We’re still talking about it 30 years later, which is a good test.
But nobody has talked about it for 30 years; we’re only talking about it because of you!
(Laughs) The period setting is interesting, and it’s very smart the way it’s art directed. There are only a couple of really big sequences, like the prom scene. Everything else is quite remote, with a couple of period cars. For my version, I wasn’t trying to make it feel like a period piece, but I wanted it to feel like the town had frozen in time roughly at the period the original movie came out. There are lots of towns like that in the States. I wanted the fashions to be just retro enough to not be annoying. It’s current, but it has a feel of the past. I made sure there were no new cars around. I wanted to save anything like that for the final frames of the movie where [Addison Timlin’s character] is walking among the very modern architecture, to show that she’s come of age. That was very important to me.
Denis O’Hare plays Charles B. Pierce Jr., the son of the original film’s director. Did the real Charles B. Pierce Jr. have to sign off on that?
Yeah, I met the real Charles Jr. while I was doing research in Texarkana, and I spent a lot of time with him. So he inspired the writing of a character based on him, and he was happy to sign off on it. That was a kind of meta accident! I was talking to the sheriff and he told me that Charles Jr. still lived in the area and sometimes did some work on the sheriff’s ranch. I was like, “What?”. Denis and Charles Jr. met too, so Denis was able to take some character things from the real guy. It was beautiful!
The adult cast around the youngsters is really strong: Denis, Veronica Cartwright, Gary Cole, Anthony Anderson, the late Edward Herrmann, Ed Lauter…
It’s always a surprise when great people respond to your project. They also all had a good sense of humour and they understood the movie that I was trying to make. It was a short commitment, and they liked the people involved. They all went into it knowing what it was going to be and we had a blast doing it. There are serious sequences and some somewhat serious ideas, but we didn’t take it too seriously, if that makes sense. I was very clear going into it: it’s a slasher film but it was going to have the rhythm and texture of things like The Last Picture Show, One From The Heart and Truffaut’s Day For Night! We tried some very bold sequences…
The Town That Dreaded Sundown was released in the UK on April 17, 2015.