The Tall Man, a horror film rife with promise, fell superbly flat when it premiered at SXSW last week. It’s hard to believe that a horror movie based on the already very creepy “slender man” urban legend, and written and directed by the creative genius behind Martyrs, could end up a bland horror pic on a soap box. Yet it did.
Despite the excellently creepy subject matter, The Tall Man contained very little actual horror. The film advertised a plot reminiscent of the “slender man” urban/internet legend. Over the past years, pictures and video have surfaced (authenticity not proven) that show a tall, thin man haunting the background of crowded playgrounds or parks. As you might expect, this footage is accompanied by reports of missing and abducted children. The “slender man” legend has obviously been turned into the “tall man” legend for the sake of this film.
The Tall Man’s plot surrounds an isolated town in the north that has been under the shadow of unexplained child abductions for years. The town is dying, most of the people who live there are poor, and children have been going missing for years. None of them have ever been found. Whispers of a tall man appearing at or near the scenes of the disappearances has led to the rise of a town legend.
Nurse Julia Denning (Jessica Biel) wakes up late at night and walks in on an attempted abduction of her child. Catching sight of the child being carried away by a tall, hooded form dressed in black, Julia risks everything and runs after them. Her pursuit, and the twists of the plot that come after, are interesting but far from horrific.
Despite its lack of horror, the film did have some drama and tension building as Julia pursued the hooded figure deep into the midnight woods. But that’s about as far as I can go in praise of this film.
To go much further into the story would be to give away some major spoilers, so I’ll just say that the plot synopsis is misleading. Whatever you may think you’re going to see when you go into this film, you will be disappointed. It ends up being a Lifetime Movie-esque tale that has a decided social agenda. And I mean up on the soap box about child poverty, global social responsibility, and the rights/obligations of parents.
When one gets past the strange (and not in a good way) story, there is also the terrible dialogue, the pedantic directing, the overt preachy-ness, and the lack of any real horror/scares. This last point is particularly distressing to me, as I expected great things from French writer/director Pascal Laugier.
Laugier is the horror master behind Martyrs, one of the most disturbing, controversial and evocative horror films I’ve ever watched. Martyrs is a film that proudly joins the new(ish) French horror movement known as New French Extremity. Xavier Gens’ Frontier(s) is in this sub-genre, as is High Tension and Inside. These are horror films that are so gory, bloody and disturbing that they have all created controversy. But, they are also extremely smart, well-written, and thought-provoking.
Now when I talk about my disappointment over the bland treatment this legend gets in The Tall Man, you will understand the depth of this film’s failure. Laugier managed to deliver a film that felt tired. The dialogue was, at times, laughable (I will give this a lost-in-translation fault). But the boring storyline and the conspicuous absence of any supernatural “tall men” can not be forgiven, nor can the bizarre social agenda.
And for those of you who are not yet convinced, and might want to one day watch this film, I must add that Biel was almost unrecognizably dowdy-looking in her role as nurse Julia. Not that I’m suggesting anybody (guys) would want to watch this film just to catch a glimpse of the bodacious Biel, but if they did it would be major letdown. Maybe she’s hoping, like other actresses in Hollywood have, that taking on a role that calls for weight gain or uglification will get her acting noticed and praised.
To that, I mentally shrug my shoulders. She was competent in the role at best, and certainly not intriguing enough to save the poor storyline and dialogue. This film is all the more disappointing because of what it could have been. For shame, Laugier; I’ll hold off on anymore censor though, and hope for another Martyrs in the near future.