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."
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.
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.