SXSW '12 Review: Pascal Laugier's 'The Tall Man' An Unfocused & Silly Horror Tale

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by Drew Taylor
March 14, 2012 10:58 AM
13 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 that 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 tooth-ache 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]

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More: SXSW Film Festival, The Tall Man, Review

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13 Comments

  • Matt | August 1, 2012 5:08 AMReply

    Unfortunately it's true.

    I absolutely loved Martyrs. It was actually my favorite out of the french movies you listed, however, he is spot on in this review. Quite frankly, The Tall Man blows.

  • endyre | July 7, 2012 8:07 AMReply

    For myself and everyone i've met who's seen 'Martyrs' the overwhelming impression has been the same: the viewer is left feeling like they've been hit in the stomach with a baseball bat for days after seeing the film.
    there is no way i would take your review of 'the tall man' at all seriously after reading what you thought about martyrs. in fact im thinking it is probably going to be very good based soley off the strength of that.
    perhaps reviewing movies is not something thats an appropriate activity for someone such as yourself.
    you can review frozen pizza's and post them to youtube if you like it may be more up your alley.

    (one problem i see with 'the tall man' is thats the guy from 'phantasm' but i'll take that as a tribute)
    good day to you sir.

  • Greg | April 6, 2012 3:31 PMReply

    Well said, Adam.

    Even if The Tall Man is as mediocre as Drew says, that can't take away from the brilliance of Martyrs. I know it was a divisive horror film, but Drew's comments do seem like he either watched the wrong movie or didn't pay attention. As far as I'm concerned, I've never been more shook up - it affected me for weeks after my first viewing.

  • Adam Barken | March 29, 2012 2:26 PMReply

    MARTYRS SPOILERS CONTAINED IN COMMENT

    Drew:

    I'm not going to argue with your appraisal of TALL MAN (haven't seen it), or your dislike of MARTYRS. To each their own. But as a critic, you've made some pretty wrong-headed statements about MARTYRS -- that's what the other commenters are objecting to, I think.

    1) "It was, at its core, a fairly conventional murder mystery/thriller" - for that statement to make any sense whatsoever, we need to hear an example of a movie that it remotely resembled. Presumably you have several, since it's so conventional. What part? The revenge thriller? The family massacre? The religious element? And even more particular, what films put all these elements together in the way MARTYRS did? Because to a fan, it's the melding of all these elements that made it unique. It's like saying THE MATRIX was conventional because it used conventions of anime, martial arts, sci-fi and Cronenbergian reality mindfucking. What other movie mixed those elements? The mixing is the unique part, as it was with MARTYRS. It took elements of the revenge thriller, woman in peril torture, conspiracy, religiosity, political commentary, and Clive Barkerish body horror. What other movie did this?

    2) "Martyrs" wasn't in the least bit political ... whereas those other movies in the French horror new wave (for lack of a better, or more creative, term) explored queasy socio-political issues like the widening gap between rich and poor ("Them"); women's rights ("Inside"); and sexuality -

    SPOILERS: Poor, forgotten girls are kidnapped and tortured by rich people looking for proof of the after-life -- a proof that they clearly intend to keep amongst their own rich coterie. Do we really need to explain how political that story is?

    Anyways, like I said, not trying to dismiss your own reaction to MARTYRS. But it was in no way conventional, and was profoundly (if subtly/allegorically) political. I would certainly suggest reading Laugier's own explanation of the genesis of the idea for the movie:

    http://www.aintitcool.com/node/39602

    I think you may find the things you claim are lacking are actually built right into MARTYRS, along with the "icky" stuff.

  • Jay | March 22, 2012 8:52 PMReply

    You definitely sound like your confusing Martyrs with Frontieres.

  • Drew | March 14, 2012 7:47 PMReply

    You guys love "Martyrs!" Maybe I'll have to go back and re-watch, although after "The Tall Man," well, that's a TALL ORDER (pun!)

  • Oogle monster | March 14, 2012 4:44 PMReply

    2 words: Jessica Biel. One word: DOOM.

  • la sanglante | March 14, 2012 4:02 PMReply

    your assessment of martyrs has me wondering what movie named martyrs you saw.

  • Drew | March 14, 2012 3:36 PMReply

    Hello everyone!
    Drew here, checking in from beautifully humid South by Southwest (seriously – you should see my hair – talk about a fright!). So here's my problem with "Martyrs" (and it's a problem that carries over into "The Tall Man"): It was, at its core, a fairly conventional murder mystery/thriller but it was gummed up with all of the sticky gore and grime that most associate with 1970s-era horror movies. (I agree that "Frontier(s)" isn't the best either but it's a notch above "Martyrs" for its sheer balls-out-ness.) "The Tall Man" is similarly simplistic but embroidered with all sort of icky, exploitative stuff about child kidnapping, rape, and murder. (Without going into it, it never even follows through on these outré conceits.) A fellow Playlister who attended the screening leaned over to me at some point and said, "This is like a really long episode of 'Law & Order: SVU,'" and she wasn't wrong: it is long and really boring and doesn't even fully commit to its material. "Martyrs" wasn't in the least bit political and neither is "The Tall Man," whereas those other movies in the French horror new wave (for lack of a better, or more creative, term) explored queasy socio-political issues like the widening gap between rich and poor ("Them"); women's rights ("Inside"); and sexuality ("High Tension," although I would argue that Aja's subsequent films, with the exception of "Mirrors," are even more mainstream but even more politically charged). Even "Frontier(s)," with its excessive violence, could be seen as an exploration and condemnation of the torture practices associated with the Iraq war. At least "Martyrs" had the guidance of the usually reliable Christophe Gans. With "The Tall Man" he's flying solo. And comes up really short.

    Let's continue the discussion, though, this is fun!

    Frizzily yours,
    Drew

  • josh | March 14, 2012 3:23 PMReply

    I wholeheartedly agree with FERRAGAMONSTER. Martyrs was incomparably higher minded than its filmic contemporaries, and in many ways the most austere stylistically. "Dingy" it was not. If anything, the film might be chided for its clinical sterility, particularly in its second half. And it's decidedly politically minded. Whether or not it succeeds on the ideopolitical terms it sets for itself is one question, but to regard it as merely cookie-cutter, as a failure to "engage with [its] material on a political level"? I frankly cannot understand that criticism. If I didn't know any better, I'd say the reviewer watched Frontiere(s) and thought he was watching Martyrs. (Also, if Laugier, "unlike his contemporaries," failed to engage with his material politically, will someone explain to me the grounds on which Aja, Gens et al. succeeded? Truly, the mind boggles.)

    Despite Martyrs' plain imperfections--its ludicrousness, even--the film haunts me in a way High Tension, Inside and the lot never will.

    Having said that, I had high hopes for The Tall Man. Quite possibly, it's as poorly executed as this reviewer insists. That absolute misfire that is his assessment of Martyrs, however, gives me pause--and cause for hope.

  • Diver | March 14, 2012 3:08 PMReply

    "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."....

    You clearly haven't seen Martyrs.... it looks like you're describing "Frontier(s)...
    I had the chance to read The tall man script and I thought the last act with kinda smart... I guess I'll wait and see...

  • Ferragamonster | March 14, 2012 1:58 PMReply

    The fact that you say Martyrs was the least impressive of those french horror flicks makes me want to ignore your review. I generally trust your reviews but Martyrs was superior to all of those french movies. Inside is fun but full of plot holes and ridiculousness. High Tension was good up until the ending. Frontier(s) didn't bring anything new to the table and if you want to talk about people copying the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, well that film does it far more than Martyrs. Them was also good and suspenseful but ultimately forgettable. Martyrs was the most original and well-written film of the bunch and to say otherwise is preposterous.

  • longinthedikk | March 14, 2012 11:54 AMReply

    holy cow! that ending?!? fuck.

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