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]