My first clue should have been that The Tall Man wasn’t shot in the same nouveau-riche Vancouver suburb where every other Lifetime movie takes place. The second was that it wasn’t lit like a telenovela, and the credit sequence was a bunch of needlessly expensive helicopter shots. In short, it didn’t look like a Lifetime movie. But it was on the Lifetime Movie Network! What gives, Lifetime?
Well, like we learned when I did the original Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? (side note: you may), not every “Lifetime Movie” is technically a Lifetime Movie. The brand has gotten confused in our minds, causing the phrase to cast a wider net than it might otherwise. In this case, I made the erroneous assumption that anything on the Lifetime Network was made by their assembly line of steely mothers doing what needs to be done against an uncaring and often hostile world. The crazy thing is, even though The Tall Man has more artistic pop than a standard Lifetime offering, it’s pretty easy to see why they wanted it on the network to begin with.
One of the most surprising revelations I’ve had since my Very Special Journey took me into the weeds of the Lifetime Network, is that the channel produces horror movies. They aren’t instantly recognizable as such, since the bulk of horror films are produced for 18-25 year old men, and Lifetime makes them for 35-50 year old women. The things that scare the former group (clowns, zombies, hillbillies), aren’t the same things that scare the latter (dead kids, cheating spouse, hillbillies). Women have always had a (mostly deserving, I think) reputation for having it together more than men, and after tacking on a couple decades of experience they have a better idea of the dangers they’re likely to encounter. So finding an honest-to-god horror film inspired by the Slenderman legend — a legend focused around preying on children — isn’t at all surprising to anyone who understands the network.
Also unsurprising is that the main character is one of those steely single moms Lifetime has built the network around. She’s even played by an actress, Jessica Biel, whose career has descended from the heights it once scaled into a more modest form of success. She lives in an extremely depressed former mining town in Washington, separating it visually from Lifetime’s usual assembly line, but it was shot in British Columbia, so there’s still the whiff of the familiar, especially with the supporting cast all wrestling with various degrees of Canadian accents. She’s the closest thing the town has to a doctor, but she’s actually merely a nurse, her doctor husband having died years ago. She lives with her son and a live-in nanny. Not sure how that last one works. It’s possible she pays her in canned beans.
This town, Cold Rock, which is not a microbrewery despite the name, is suffering from a rash of child disappearances. The kids just up and vanish. They’re blaming it on the local legend of The Tall Man, who was named after all the good monster names were taken. Some of the locals think of him as a myth, or possibly a pedophile, or maybe a mythical pedophile. You know, like Pervertseus.
As with any story like this, our hero, Julia (Biel) has her child abducted by the Tall Man. But that’s when things get weird. For one thing, the nanny ends up bound, gagged, and bloodied, which doesn’t quite seem like the method of someone who makes people disappear without a trace. Then Julia straight up turns into the fucking Terminator and runs after the Tall Man, who’s riding around in a converted ice cream truck like the monster from Jeepers Creepers. Speaking of pedophiles.
Now we’re getting into serious spoiler territory. The Tall Man isn’t a bad flick all told. The town is atmospheric, Biel isn’t bad, and the twists are just mad enough to give it a sense of livewire energy. Stephen McHattie and the cancer man himself, William B. Davis, both play small supporting roles. I might even have featured this one in a Now Fear This, had I come to it in a different way. So that being said, if you’re at all interested in the movie, go check it out. It’s not the greatest thing you’ll ever see, but it’s agreeably insane. For everyone else, I’m going to spoil the living shit out of it.
Okay, anyone still here knows what they’re in for. After Biel loses her child and suffers some pretty severe injuries (she was dragged behind a truck, attacked by a dog, beaten in the head, and on that same truck when it flipped onto its side — like I said, the Terminator), she staggers into the local diner, which is curiously packed that late at night. When she leaves the room to clean up, everyone talks like she’s the bad guy. Then she finds an altar with her missing son’s picture and she gets the hell out of there. When the townsfolk find her gone, they pursue, like an honest to god angry mob.
Because that’s the first twist: Julia is the Tall Man. She’s been abducting the children around town, keeping them for a few days or weeks, and then killing them, disposing of the bodies in the surrounding woods or in the miles of abandoned mine tunnels the town sits on top of. The shadowy figure from what we thought was the abduction was actually the boy’s real mother, a homeless woman who lives in that creepy converted ice cream truck. Julia refuses to tell the police where the bodies are buried, instead unleashing a breathless manifesto that makes about as much sense as anything called a manifesto. Best case scenario with those things is that they don’t have bombs attached.
But that’s not the final twist. A minor character, played by Jodelle Ferland, is the daughter of Samantha Ferris (most famous as Ellen in Supernatural). Ferland’s character, Jenny, has a horrible speech impediment to the point where she doesn’t even speak unless she can help it. Her home life is a nightmare, with her mother having actual knockdown drag-out brawls with her sentient meth-twitch of a boyfriend. When Jenny is injured in one of these, she apparently runs off, to be taken by the Tall Man.
…who turns out to be Julia’s “dead” husband. They abduct the kids with crappy go-nowhere lives and give them to childless people who will presumably raise them right. Jenny gets placed with a rich woman, and though her life is demonstrably improved (she even speaks without difficulty), it’s hard not to be queasy at the blatant class politics at play. Stealing kids away from poor families was the justification for taking an entire generation of Native Americans from their parents. To the movie’s credit, it ends (with a horrible voiceover and Jenny looking directly into the camera, because this film can’t do anything right without first being thuddingly wrong) with a question rather than an assertion. Jenny isn’t sure if this really is better or not.
So what did we learn? If you’re going to be a monster, make sure you come up with a cool name first. Maybe put something distinctive on yourself, so your height isn’t the only thing people see.