Cast: Jessica Biel, Jodelle Ferland, Samantha Ferris, Eve Harlow, Stephen McHattie, William B. Davis
Running time: 102mins
The lowdown: Director Pascal Laugier follows his ferocious sophomore movie Martyrs with another first-class shocker. Jessica Biel is a doctor in an economically depressed mining town whose children are vanishing at an alarming rate. Locals believe “the Tall Man” is spiriting the kids away into the nearby woods and over one terrifying night the truth is uncovered, but this is just the beginning. Shocking, unusual and with raw emotion and smarts to spare, this is one of the year’s biggest surprises.
The full verdict: Martyrs was an extraordinary love-it-or-hate-it horror movie with plenty of plot twists amongst the hardcore violence. Although director Laugier has ditched the gore this time, The Tall Man still has surprises beneath its hood.
A horror movie for these uncertain times, it lifts the dirt-poor mountain setting of Winter’s Bone and the rural superstition of The Blair Witch Project, the eternal fear of child abduction, and boasts surprises of its own (and deserved better than its straight-to-DVD fate).
Opening strong, in the suitably named town of Cold Rock Dr Julia Denning (Biel) delivers the baby of a teenage girl, to the surprise of the teenager’s mother, Tracy (Ferris). Tracy has another daughter, the deaf-mute Jenny (Ferland), who idolises Julia and fills a sketch book with accomplished drawings, including one of the Tall Man.
That night Julia awakes to discover her friend (Harlow) bound and gagged and her boy David (Davies) being abducted by a tall figure in black and gives chase.
With compelling, no-nonsense direction Laugier works from a slow-build of tension, carefully establishing the town’s distrustful vibe and out-of-way location before hitting high gear with an exhilarating chase scene as Julia relentlessly pursues the abductor’s van and suffers for her efforts.
From here on the film expertly teases the audience, unfolding the story in tantalising snippets, moving characters with grandmaster precision and subverting expectations.
Just as surprising is how Laugier’s themes from Martyrs – abused innocence, children, veneers of respectability covering darker concerns – work in a mainstream setting.
Biel (who also exec produces) gives a performance that, along with her portrayal of Vera Miles in Hitchcock, suggests she is emerging from a bland CV to become an actress of real interest.
In a near-mute turn, Ferland also impresses as does Ferris, who uses a small amount of screen time to add real emotional impact come the closing moments of the film. Genre favourites McHattie (of Pontypool) and Davis (The X-Files’ Smoking Man) fill out the background as representatives of the Law.
Watch The Tall Man, and then watch it again to appreciate Laugier’s continued ability to surprise and thrill, and to be thankful he passed on remaking Hellraiser to bring something fresh to horror cinema.