Alfonso Gomez-Rejon directing the movie Me, Earl and the Dying Girl probably wouldn’t make you think that he could knock it out of the park when it comes to horror. Seeing that this was produced by Jason Blum and Ryan Murphy (Gomez-Rejon also worked with the latter on the excoriable American Horror Story) isn’t something that would give you any hope, either. But man — this is way better than I would have ever thought and is actually a movie I’ve recommended to many people.
October 31, 2013. Texarkana. The local drive-in is showing its annual event of the original The Town That Dreaded Sundown, which the film at once presents as an actual film in its universe but also one based on the true story of the Phantom Killer of 1946. Corey Holland and Jami Lerner do the typical slasher move of leaving the drive-in to make out before the Phantom attacks them, saying, “This is for Mary. Make them remember.”
With that, we’re let loose in the modern world, where people have started to forget the Phantom but are about to get a devastating reminder of his power. There’s a bravura sequence where a soldier comes back home from leave and instantly finds himself in a hotel with his girlfriend before leaving to get a drink. He’s beheaded and the Phantom brutally kills her before calling Jami with Corey’s phone, saying, “I’m going to do it again and again until you make them remember.”
Just like in 1946, people start locking their doors and demanding that the police do something. Much like an Americanized giallo, Jami responds by starting her own investigation with a former classmate named Nick. And then “Lone Wolf” Morales (Anthony Anderson) takes over the case from the locals, like Chief Deputy Tillman (Gary Cole, always a welcome face).
Jami keeps getting emails from the killer, yet the police don’t believe her. They already have the killer — a depressed teen who has dressed up as the Phantom to die via suicide by cop. But the murderer isn’t really dead, as the remake/reimagining redoes the first film’s infamous trombone murder one better by having the Phantom wipe out a young male couple.
The cops decide to look closer at the email and determine that it came from Reverend Cartwright (Edward Herrmann in his last role) but don’t believe he is the killer. Jami hasn’t stopped looking and learns that Charles B. Pierce’s (the creator of the original as well as The Legend of Boggy Creek) son still lives in the area. He believes that this Phantom is the grandson of Hank McCreedy, the forgotten sixth victim of the original Phantom, who had a wife named Mary.
Meanwhile, the Phantom moves on to even killing cops, wiping out Tillman while he’s instigating a sword fight with a lady he’s brought home from the bar. While all this is going on, Jami decides to leave town to go to college and loses her virginity to Nick, who is quickly killed by the Phantom.
As she tries to leave town with her grandmother, the Phantom attacks them at a gas station, killing nearly everyone with a rifle. Jami finds Nick’s body just as she’s pinned to a wall by arrows and learns that there are two killers — Deputy Foster, who is McReady’s grandson and her boyfriend Corey, who had faked his death. Corey tries to tell her that Texarkana had a box made for them and they are the same, but she rejects him. Foster then shoots Cory so that he has a patsy to blame, but Jami shoots him and escapes. His body is never found.
In the end, Jami is off at college, far away from small town life. Yet even there, the shadow of the Phantom is still there.
This movie is never going to replace the original, obviously. It has none of the abrupt shifts in narrative tone, instead staying firmly in dark territory. But unlike so many modern remakes, it both honors and adds to the movie that it came from.
You can watch this movie on Amazon Prime.