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Review: Pascal Laugier's 'The Tall Man' An Unfocused & Silly Horror Tale

Reviews
by Drew Taylor
August 28, 2012 7:56 PM
18 Comments
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A few years ago there was a sort of mini-horror movie renaissance in France, with a bunch of talented young directors paying homage to their favorite American horror films the only way they knew how – by making them incredibly French. Under the stewardship of older French genre provocateurs (like Luc Besson and Christophe Gans), a new litter of spiky young filmmakers gave us visceral and challenging movies like "Them," "High Tension," "Frontier(s)," "Inside," and "Martyrs." The latter in particular was pretty heavily fawned over and picked up by The Weinstein Company for distribution through their Dimension shingle, although when it came time to release the film, they weren't sure what to do with such an extreme movie. Now the writer/director of "Martyrs," Pascal Laugier, is back with his first English-language film, "The Tall Man." And whatever blood-splattered charm he might have mustered with "Martyrs," it isn't apparent now.

The set-up of "The Tall Man" is fairly simple. In a small town in Washington state (very clearly Canada), children have been mysteriously vanishing. The police never find the kids' bodies, and a local legend has sprung up around the kidnappings – it's the Tall Man, the townsfolk claim, a creature clad all in black who scoops up the children and goes into the woods to do god-knows-what with them. The townspeople are spooked to the point that, as the movie opens, we see a young woman concealing her pregnancy from her family and giving birth in a grungy women's health clinic run by a kindly doctor (Jessica Biel in a sub-Nic Cage-ian wig). At first the baby seems stillborn and Biel tries to revive the child as the camera slowly pushes in; but the whole thing is so clumsy that all you can think is, "Wow, that baby's been asleep for an awfully long zoom."

When Biel goes into town, the townsfolk don't treat her all that well, partially because of her husband's mysterious death (plus their small town sexism means they hiss things like, "You're not a doctor, you're just a nurse," a claim that the movie can't even substantiate because we know so little about her character), but mostly because she's pretty and new in a ghoulishly drab place full of near-gremlins (among them the Cigarette Smoking Man himself, William B. Davis, and an outside investigator played by Stephen McHattie). There's also a spooky little girl, played by Jodelle Ferland and looking like she just crawled out of a Japanese television set, who claims to have seen the Tall Man.

You can tell what Laugier is going for in these early scenes – he's trying to build up a sustainable amount of atmosphere, mood, and tension. And the movie has a pretty good structure for that, with the townspeople clotting together into an angry hive mind and the mysterious kidnapper taking on almost mythic dimensions as the stories are repeated and elaborated on. In essence, it could have been about the power of myth, how merely talking about something can give it some unseen force; even the name suggests an old-timey tall tale. In the first "Nightmare on Elm Street," you got the insulated community and the boogie man that just might be real (the kids even had a song they would hum about the child murderer), and the same kind of thing has been explored countless times in the novels of Stephen King. But Laugier never gives any of the supporting players traits beyond "fat woman in diner," so instead of fully developed characters who, if the situation changed, could become viperous and cruel, we're just left with a bunch of actors playing nothing roles. They don't lend any reality to the situation and they certainly don't help maintain the atmosphere that Laugier is so desperately trying to establish.

Instead, the story spirals out of control. Biel's child is taken by the Tall Man (or at least a "shadowy figure") and as her fight to win him back takes up much of the middle section of the movie, it brings to mind "Taken," only laced with quasi-supernatural elements and a whole lot of poorly lit backwoods Canadian roads. It's just that as her quest continues things become so convoluted that you can barely understand what is supposed to be happening on screen (the movie's muddy photography, reminding us why we should never shoot digital in forests, certainly doesn't help clarify anything). We're tempted to give away the last act just so that you can understand how bonkers this movie is, but it wouldn't be fair to those who actually want to see it someday. But as each moment passes, the movie gets less scary and more silly. And the final story beat is so toothache sugary, it made us want to throw something rotten at the screen.

Laugier's "Martyrs" was the least impressive movie of that bumper crop of French horror flicks, and it was easy to see why – instead of subverting or elaborating on the films that his contemporaries adored (mostly 1970s American horror movies and political thrillers), Laugier just copied and pasted. The result was less a film than a laborious game of spot-the-reference ("Texas Chainsaw Massacre"! "The Hills Have Eyes"!) that had a fair amount of production-designed dinginess but little actual grit. It was too slick to be scary, too knowingly winky to chill, and unlike his contemporaries, Laugier failed to engage with the material on a political level. It was all gore-slicked surface. And while "The Tall Man" feels like a more earnest attempt at popular horror filmmaking, it's too weird, soggy and unfocused to ever come across as anything more than something that could have been great. Biel really commits to the character, but the filmmakers give us so little to go on that she seems determined but not all that sympathetic. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and in a few months it will also be paved with unwatched DVD copies of "The Tall Man." [D]

This is a reprint of our review from SXSW.

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18 Comments

  • James | April 15, 2013 12:46 PMReply

    I agree with the review of the movie, but I think it was much better than Martyrs. If you view the ending as the film maker inverting morality by getting you to cheer for the bad guy, and them becoming introspective after you eventually understand the "bad guy" (We'll call him the Canucknapper for clarity without spoiler) was in fact a bad guy, it could be viewed as a kind of ingenious way of messing with the audience's morals. Still not a great movie, but not as horrible as other films of the 'French Wave' (Haute Tension, Ils, ect).

    On a related note, I'm still amazed people think Martyrs was a good film, much less a smart one. Aside from being disjointed and boring, it was well....dumb.

  • Josh | November 24, 2012 12:48 AMReply

    This reviewer's appraisal of Martyrs makes no sense at all. Two of the new French horror movies from the past decade that did have a ton of very deliberate riffs/outright ripoff scenes from '70s American classics were Frontiere(s) and Calvaire. Beyond that it's a matter of opinion, but I felt that Martrys is far and away the most original, intelligent and exciting of all these movies, by far. Most of the rest of them aren't worth much. The Tall Man was flawed, but brave and interesting.

  • Mark | September 15, 2012 5:30 PMReply

    I agree that THE TALL MAN has problems, including tonal inconsistency and Jessica Biel's flat performance (Stephen McHattie is, as always, excellent), but it deserves credit for zigging when most horror movies have conditioned us to expect a zag. That, I think, is Laugier's major strength as a storyteller, and in that regard you really missed the boat here. 'Fess up -- did you really see MARTYRS, or are you faking it?

  • luis | September 2, 2012 6:23 PMReply

    i just say i slept more than 20 mins all the three times i tried patiently to sit through the vision of THE TALL MAN. everytime Jodelle Farlene appears and start being spooky I already fell asleep. And its incredible because she was amazing both in TIDELAND and in SILENT HILL (right?). anyways this TALL MAN is super boring and pretty silly minute after minute. the central part just made me wonder is this going to be really in cinemas?

  • Vern | August 31, 2012 5:29 AMReply

    I disagree with the review and won't bother with the "did we even see the same movie?" cliche, but wanted to post to agree with the above poster who believes you're mixing up MARTYRS with a different movie. MARTYRS is not full of references, is not paying any obvious homage to CHAINSAW or HILLS HAVE EYES, is clearly political in its treatment of class and exploitation, and most of all I can't imagine anyone who has seen it ever even thinking of describing it as "winky." My guess is you're thinking of FRONTIER(S), since it's pretty much an update of TEXAS CHAIN SAW and has the nice hunchback girl who's kinda like Ruby in HILLS HAVE EYES (although some of the other stuff doesn't really fit).

  • amilu | September 4, 2012 10:19 PM

    I was thinking the same thing as I read this review. The reviewer honestly thinks that Martyrs was the least impressive of the new wave of French horror?? Really?? Now it's been a while since I've seen it, but I didn't think it was blatantly derivative at all of classic American horror. I would never classify it as a copy/past/paint-by-numbers job. On the contrary, I thought it was refreshing and original (and, yes, scary).

  • LJH | August 30, 2012 5:21 AMReply

    I Agree with this entirely, its definately a marmite film due to what you expect and what you get. I generally love this type of thing but i think i didnt enjoy it due to just expecting (in a good way) a straight forward myth driven monster flick. that is all

  • Liam | August 30, 2012 2:07 AMReply

    Wow, i'm a bit upset you didn't mention any of the social commentary that was in both Martyrs AND The Tall Man.
    How high were your expectations going into this film? I really enjoyed it, and to each his own, etc..but I loved how the trailer misled me and how both of Pacal's story structure in both films, kinda take a complete U-turn.

  • Terry Grant | August 30, 2012 1:04 AMReply

    - "The result was less a film than a laborious game of spot-the-reference ("Texas Chainsaw Massacre"! "The Hills Have Eyes"!)"

    What part of Martyrs reminded you of either of those two films? Frontier(s), on the other hand, is a direct rip off of those two, as well as a few other american horror classics. Waaaaay overrated.

    Maybe you're confusing the two?

  • Jorge | August 29, 2012 7:42 AMReply

    The trailer is misleading. I believe they tried to sell the movie in a cheap way to protect the secret/twist. And yes. It's political, but in a universal way.

  • Jim | August 29, 2012 4:36 AMReply

    Gonna have to disagree. Martyrs, brought something new to a dying genre, and Tall Man does the same. It might not be as good, but its far better then alot of the crap that makes it to theaters.Anyone that says they saw the twist coming is lying, and the guy that wrote this article just pointed out a bunch of useless stuff. (Canadian woods, wigs, etc.)

  • KES | August 29, 2012 12:35 AMReply

    I'm going to confess to liking Martyrs and hoping for more out of the Tall Man. I agree with the assessment that it's muddled and has a third act that is bizarre and unsatisfying. The film is, also, horribly classist in its fairly simple-minded solution to the horrors of a poor white trash town. I couldn't help thinking that Laugier's film is a mini-meditation on what a French person thinks is wrong with the U.S.: we are a country composed of too many uneducated hicks. Meh.

  • KES | September 2, 2012 11:23 PM

    Hey, Anyone,

    I didn't bring politics to the movie--the poor-white-trash-people-suck theme is not even subtext, it's text--the movie brought the politics to me.

    Viewers might not notice this part of the text, but it's pretty obvious if a person pays much attention.

  • Anyone | August 29, 2012 4:38 AM

    Try to watch a movie and not bring politics into it. Thats whats wrong with this country, everything is political. It's a movie.

  • jingmei | August 28, 2012 10:54 PMReply

    Personally thinking this is not a really bad suspense film, since it added something else besides the twist.

  • CRM 114 | August 28, 2012 10:50 PMReply

    Please, stop writing and get back to your day job, whatever that is.

  • Anonymouse | August 28, 2012 10:15 PMReply

    agree that this film is weak and with a third act so ludicrous it begs amnesia. however, i disagree with Martyrs being the weakest of the french horror renaissance. them and high tension were simply awful films. Martyrs stayed with me long after those films did. it did what many, many horror films fail to do: it got under my skin.

  • WRT | August 28, 2012 9:02 PMReply

    I'm curious to know the development history of this project and how it parallels the rise of the Slender Man mythos online. Marble Hornets, at least for its first twenty or so episodes, was incredibly effective, though now it's just dragging a la Lost, surely leading nowhere but to (more) deferral and disappointment. I want to believe this prefigures the Slender Man stuff, as it seems to have so much less imagination and intrigue; it seems more to be a schematic reworking of the tall, skeletal child murderer myths from Germany, but the timing is coincidental. I imagine this went into production in 2010 or 2011 right as Marble Hornets was picking up steam. The "Tall Man" conceit also reminds one of Phantasm: "...we're gonna snag that tall dude...!" It's nothing new as an idea, but the elemental terror of Slender Man as a specific figuration, especially as dramatically elaborated by Marble Hornets, has put it on the map, I think

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