Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Descent--Talia Lugacy (2007)

Maya (Rosario Dawson) is just a smart college student eager for new experiences in Descent (Talia Lugacy, 2007)
Rape-revenge is one of my least favorite subgenres in horror, mostly because in a rape culture, rape is an all too real horror, and not as often linked to the supernatural (although there are supernatural rapes too).  In recent years, more women have tackled this particular subject matter, often in rather unique ways, diverging from the exploitation pics of the 70s that really put the subgenre on the map (such as I Spit on Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978) or Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972)).  The hardest thing for me is to watch the rape at all--even if there is a great deal of revenge afterwards.  I seem to shut down during that scene (or scenes).  I vividly remember going to see Martin Scorcese's remake of Cape Fear (1991) in theaters, and just being "done" after Robert De Niro broke Illeana Douglas's arm and bit her face during her rape...yep, DONE!  Since then, I've been really intrigued by how women might represent that scene differently (and yeah, there's usually only one scene rather than a few)

Talia Lugacy's Descent (2007) really stands out, not only because of its pointed critique of toxic masculinity, but its intersectional approach to both race and gender.  Rosario Dawson really shines as the smart, ambitious Maya, who is only a first or second year student (although she looks a bit older) at a local University.  Like any young student, she's invited to a party; she's not a heavy drinker, and she's wary of the phenomenal amount of douchebags lurking around every corner.

A wary Maya attempts to party
At this party she meets football-bro Jared (Chad Faust), a gangly white dude who tries some requisite pick up lines on Maya, and then realizing that she's not buying it, says some things that seem really heartfelt.  For all intents and purposes, they could be just "meeting cute," but since spectators know damn well what's going to happen, we all just sit in dread waiting for the inevitable.  Jared doesn't seem outwardly nasty, and there are no warning flags or sirens to give Maya pause.  In fact, even when she comes back to his place after their date at a fancy restaurant, it's not clear what will happen.  But it does.  Things turn ugly and Maya will never be the same again.

Jared (Chad Faust) seems like a sweet date...until he isn't
Maya's rape is framed almost entirely like the image above, not exploiting their naked bodies, and focusing very closely on Maya's face and her distress.  Like any of these scenes, it goes on too long, but is far more brief than most. As spectators, we are entirely focused on Maya's emotional landscape.  What follows Maya's ordeal is rather striking.  Initially, she becomes more withdrawn, not telling anyone her story, and retreating into a job in retail, where other dickish guys see her as "hot" but unbelievably "cold" for the disinterest she has toward them.  Meanwhile, she has a rather transformative summer, and ends up at a nightclub one night filled with people of color, dancing, grooving, getting it on.  The vibe is sensual and fun.  When she ends up drunk and passed out, the club's DJ, Adrian (Marcus Patrick) takes her under his wing, serving as a protector and a bit of enabler.  She slips into a world filled with sex and drugs, but the film never comes off as judgmental, even if we worry about her future after her horrible experience with Jared.  She's become jaded, but stronger as well.

Fall arrives, and Maya soldiers on, even becoming a TA for one of her classes (as an undergrad!), but things go pear shaped when she notices that Jared is one of the students, AND she catches him cheating when she's proctoring an exam that he's taking.  She calls him on it, and when he intimates that she misses him, she plays along, inviting him on a date where she calls the shots.  Audiences anticipate that the revenge aspect of the film has finally arrived, and the film really doesn't get there until nearly the end, focusing far more on Maya's emotional journey prior to the vengeance.

Jared enjoys submitting to Maya on their final date
In the "revenge" scenes in the "rape-revenge" thriller, women avenging their rape(s) tend to get rather stabby and castrating, playing into a male spectator's darkest fears.  Women also, unfortunately in my estimation, tend to become very hypersexual in order to seduce the male characters into a vulnerable state, playing into their narcissistic belief that ALL women want them, even after they've brutally raped them (WTF).  Jared fits right into this role, really reveling in Maya demanding that he strip, and then blindfolding him and tying him to the bed.  It's all in good fun, right?  Here, Lugacy does not hold back on the full frontal MALE nudity, and we are served up a whole lot of penis in this film.  The camera focuses on Jared's entire vulnerable body, and I'm still on the fence about the final scene, where Maya, with help from Adrian, rapes Jared right back.  This scene goes on for a really, really, really, really long time.  That two people of color are perpetrating this revenge on this obnoxious white dude is really refreshing, and also downright hard to watch--which seems to be exactly the point.  The film asks the question, how much does an "eye for an eye" really get you??

Descent takes rape revenge in exciting new directions
I recommend seeing the Original Theatrical Version which is rated a totally justifiable NC-17, and really sitting with some of the messages this film is trying to convey.  Rosario Dawson's performance is truly remarkable, and its great to see a woman's distinctive voice added to this subgenre's disturbing canon.  Coralie Fargeat's Revenge (2017), made a decade later, makes a good companion piece, and will be streaming on Shudder some time in 2018.  A review is forthcoming (I saw it in October at Sitges, and I need another screening to get my thoughts together), but definitely check out Descent when you can.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Winchester--Michael and Peter Spierig (2018)

To be perfectly clear, Winchester (2018) is not really about Sara Winchester, but actually about this guy (Jason Clarke)
I'm big fans of the Spierig brothers, Michael and Peter.  On a lark, I saw Undead (2003) in theaters, and I utterly adored it (even though Owen Gleiberman savaged it in EW--he didn't "get it").  I liked Daybreakers (2009) and I think Predestination (2014) is a work of genius--seriously, it's brain melting brilliant.  So, I was not prepared at all for the absolute s***show that is their latest film, Winchester (2018), although if I had known that they'd joined the Blumhouse family already with Jigsaw (2017), I would have hesitated.  The film has been getting press mostly regarding its "based on a true story" moniker, since supposedly Sarah Winchester, the heir to the Winchester rifle fortune,  built the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose in order to appease the ghosts that had died from her family's rifles--something she could never quite do, so she kept building, and building, and building that damn house.  Some parts of that story are true--she was an heiress to the rifle fortune, she built a house in San Jose--but a lot of it is apocryphal, and the Spierigs take the bones of the story, and turn the silliness dial up to twelve, because eleven just isn't far enough.  The trailer makes the film seem like a great haunted house yarn centering on Sarah Winchester, played by the weirdly ageless Helen Mirren like a goth Miss Havisham, traipsing around in full grief regalia the whole damn time.

The awesome Helen Mirren as a goth Miss Havisham, er...I mean Sarah Winchester
This woman frequently comes across as intelligent and regal, no matter what kind of crappy role she's given, and trust me, this one is truly crappy.  She's no Jane Tennyson.  While you would think the film is about her, it's actually about Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) a washed-up laudanum junkie doctor who had a brush with death that made him lose his "once in a lifetime love" from which he's never quite recovered (ergo laudanum).  He's hired by the minority shareholders of the Winchester Rifle Co. to declare Sarah Winchester nuts so they can take over her controlling share of the company, and she will subsequently stop building her damn house.  He shows up at the construction site in San Jose, to find everyone expecting him and not excited about it. Not only is Sarah wise to his laudanum habit, but her niece (Sarah Snook) and her painfully annoying son, Henry, are not fans of his either.  Also, Henry has this habit of sleepwalking with a bag over his head in the oddest places, and talking in weird voices with glazed over white eyes.  See, still not really about Sarah here.  Ugh, I'm still mad that I paid for this film.

The Winchester House looks like a fake stage set, which is what the Spierigs shot on, in Australia
Dr. Price has a special connection to the Winchester House, since he was shot with a Winchester rifle, and died for 3 minutes, then came back to life--which makes him the only one who can stop an especially malevolent ghost played by Richard Horne from Twin Peaks: The Return (Eamon Farren), who absolutely defines the term "ugly pretty."  Turns out that only Sarah and Eric can see this ghost, although he possesses annoying nephew Henry any chance he gets.  The film goes on, and on, and on, with Eric thinking that Sarah's crazy, and then realizing that she's not and that everything she says is totally true, even when delivered in an over-the-top scenery chewing fashion by Mirren.  In fact, I almost nodded off at one point--in a movie theater, with some guy opening and crumpling every plastic covered snack food imaginable behind my head.  One would think that nodding off would be physically impossible since this film is almost entirely made of jump scares--really dumb, overly telegraphed jump scares.  I guess the insipid, stilted dialogue induced narcolepsy.

False advertising--this film is not about what's going on inside Sarah Winchester's head
Finally, Jason Clarke, Eric, whatever, figures his s*** out, gives Sarah a clean bill of health, and but for a few ornery nails (far more entertaining in a Quay Brothers film), all is well.  Except for the fact that the Spierig Brothers have squandered all my good will toward them. Now I think I understand why, before the film, the Brothers headline a very brief making-of doc and "thank us all" for going to see their film.  Yeah, you're not welcome guys.  Not welcome at all.  Let me put it this way:  both Havenhurst and The Abandoned were better films.  Not Visions, though.  That film was on par with this one.  Ugh, Winchester.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Havenhurst--Andrew C. Erin (2016)

Havenhurst (Andrew C. Erin, 2016) expertly wastes excellent horror film talent, like poor Danielle Harris
Ugh, Havenhurst.  Just to be clear, there's absolutely nothing supernatural going on in Andrew C. Erin's apartment horror film, which is the first way that this film so-o-o disappoints.  Ominous shots of a stately, grandiose apartment building in NYC suggest that we are strictly in haunted house territory.  The grisly opening murders (bye, bye Danielle Harris) appear to support this premise, as forces suddenly appear and throw bodies around with supernatural strength.  All I could think is "please, please let this be a malevolent apartment building!"  Meh.  Spoiler--but only for the first half hour.  Only the landlords are malevolent.

After what seems like a fairly promising start, the film shifts its focus to Jackie (played by the always fabulous Julie Benz), a recovering alcoholic sent to Havenhurst after rehab, as it seems to be some kind of commonly used halfway house.  Seriously?  This kind of real estate in NYC, I would pretend to be a recovering addict just to live there.  Not so ironically, Jackie ends up in the exact same building from which her former addict pal Danielle has recently disappeared.  Coincidence?  No such thing in horror films.

The equally wonderful Fionnula Flanagan is also wasted here as Eleanor, Jackie's smarmy new landlord
On her first night at Havenhurst, strange things start to happen in Jackie's apartment.  She hears strange noises--of course.  She lays out a couple of dresses for her "lease signing" with Eleanor (Fionnula Flanagan), her new landlord, and when she comes back from the shower, only one is on the bed--the other dress has clearly been "rejected" and is hanging back in her closet.  I would have been out of there right then, but Jackie also sees the realities of this real estate coup, and signs the lease without reading it.  She just must understand the rules--as long as she's "good," she can live there until she dies.  Breaking the rules earns you an eviction, and eviction = death in this film.  Horrible, gruesome deaths--disembowelment, acid bath, non-consensual cremation, what have you.

Jackie (Julie Benz) and her young, "innocent" neighbor Sarah (Bella Shouse) flee from Eleanor's murderous kids
Meanwhile, Jackie has befriended an innocent girl next door, Sarah, who seems to know what's going on in the building, but as a tween, is pretty helpless to do anything about it.  She just warns Jackie not to break the rules, which is exactly what Jackie does, because she's an intrepid rule breaking heroine who gets herself into all kinds of trouble.  Even Josh Stamberg, as her police detective pal, Tim, cannot seem to save her from her own destructive curiosity.  Jackie deliberately falls off the wagon in order to find out what happened to Danielle, and some of the other "missing" denizens of Havenhurst.

Jackie discovers what's going on in the basement of Havenhurst
So, Ugh, Havenhurst.  Supposedly the film is linked to an actual serial killer case involving H.H. Holmes, a guy in Chicago who killed all these people in the hotel he owned (Ryan Murphy totally ripped this story off for American Horror Story: Hotel).  The film claims that he got his start at Havenhurst, and Eleanor and her horrible children are keeping the tradition alive, killing off anyone who isn't a good person (according to their morals, which are questionable).  Fionnula Flanagan really chews the scenery in this film, but her malevolence is telegraphed from early on.  I was hoping she was part of a Rosemary's Baby type satanic cult, but no such luck.  Instead, viewers find out a half hour in that the entire building is under surveillance, and booby-trapped, and that Eleanor's lovely boys are living in the walls, preying on the "weak."  The one thing I can say for the film is that the ending surprised me; it does not make the film worth seeing, but I didn't see the ending coming, and that's always a plus in my estimation.  Still, Ugh, Havenhurst.  Just don't.

The Abandoned--Eytan Rockaway (2015)

Julia/Streak's journey is rather harrowing in The Abandoned (Eytan Rockaway, 2015)
Why is it that so many creepy haunted spaces were formerly the home/burial ground for an insane asylum?  Julia (Louisa Krause) stumbles upon one in the majestically set "haunted heroine" film The Abandoned (Eytan Rockaway, 2015), encountering the gamut of well-preserved children's drawings, rickety beds covered in mysterious stains, and voices calling to her from every corridor and dank, dark hallway--all the ingredients for some derivative, but unsettling scares.  The film opens with Julia taking a cab to her new job as a night security guard at some gigantic, ornate, and sinister abandoned apartment building.  Spectators learn that she's a "haunted heroine" almost immediately, as she chats with her Mom on her phone; we find out that 1) she has a kid, and 2) she's gotten into some trouble, and this job is her "last chance," and 3) that she has to take her "medication."  Of course.  So, from the film's first moments we should not trust Julia's potentially crazy POV, as we go on this subjective journey with her.

Jason Patric is her curmudgeonly paraplegic co-worker Cooper
The first horror that Julia encounters is the grumpy as f*** Cooper (Jason Patric), who has been working as a security guard for quite some time, ruling over a set of surveillance cameras and chasing his coworkers away with rampant hostility.  Yes, he cannot use his legs, which makes him a curious candidate for guard duty, but hey, the film has to make him unhelpful in order to put Julia in serious peril.  The use of a head-cam as Julia walks around gives the film some really unnecessary surveillance footage--making the film even more derivative than it needs to be.  At least Julia isn't a secret ghost hunter, although that fact doesn't make the narrative any less ridiculous.

This mysterious abandoned apartment building looks suspiciously similar to Grand Central Station
The opulent setting of the film's abandoned apartment complex is what makes The Abandoned worth the watch--supposedly it was shot at the Prince George Ballroom in NYC, and some of the sets are pretty breathtaking.  Still, most of the film is shot in dank hallways and boiler rooms barely lit by a flashlight.  Now I love a good, scary hallway, but one really wonders why Julia, on her first night on the job, would decide to break the lock in a forbidden area of the building and go exploring.  Ah, to forward the plot, obviously.

A Heroine isn't truly "Haunted" without malevolent kid ghosts in the mix
As I mentioned earlier, seems that the apartment complex was actually an asylum housing the strangest menagerie of kids with issues, and they really don't like adults.  Mix in some weird poisoned water, neglectful caretakers, and angry ghosts abound.  One silly, but kind of fun scene has Cooper losing control of his wheelchair, as it speeds down the hallway by some kind of "force."  Just when you are truly wondering how Julia and Cooper will get out of this mess, the film switches gears and the ending MAKES NO SENSE.  It garnered a "wait...what?"  As per many desperate horror films, the twist makes you question everything that came before, and then the film SWITCHES BACK, making viewers question the previous ending.  While I can usually posit some type of interpretation (as an expert, natch), this film left me utterly puzzled--as if the filmmakers couldn't decide on an ending either, so let's have two contradictory ones!  The Abandoned is currently streaming on Netflix, and I'm on the fence whether to recommend it or not.  Like The Forest, I would say that there are some really great moments, but they don't make up for a film that really takes a header rather than nailing the landing.  Ooof.

The Sound--Jenna Mattison (2017)

Rose McGowan must fight not to be infected by The Sound (Jenna Mattison, 2017)
Trawling through Amazon looking for "haunted heroines," I came across the quite compelling, women-directed The Sound (Jenna Mattison, 2017), starring the sadly underutilized Rose McGowan.  Rose has recently drawn quite a bit of attention for being a vocal activist against sexual harassment and assault, accusing Harvey "the disgusting pig" Weinstein of rape way before it became a deluge of accounts and spurring a "white, sexual harassment" version of the #MeToo movement.  Admittedly, McGowan's current role in this movement garnered much of my initial interest in the film (that, and that she looks remarkably like Angelina Jolie).  Yet her performance as ghost debunker Kelly Johanson really won me over, and while there are some loopy plot holes here and there, The Sound is a chilling ghost story that rather astutely brings another "haunted heroine" into our midst.  Damn, there certainly is no shortage of these women in horror.  Could there be some link with horror's penchant for unreliable female narrators within cultures where women are rarely trusted or believed?  Coincidence?

To remind readers, the figure I term "the haunted heroine" is a frequent female character in the horror film genre.  She is a vulnerable, often fragile character suffering from a previous trauma, and the film traces her journey as she interacts with a space that morphs and transforms around her.  This interaction with cinematic space is linked explicitly to the character's subjectivity, as her confusion and disorientation mirrors the space she occupies.  The line between reality and fantasy is hopelessly blurred in these horror films, and the chief concern here is whether the heroine is actually experiencing supernatural occurrences, or if she's just losing her mind.  Often, "science" is used to disprove the existence of ghosts, but the technology used to disprove such things rarely works, and consistently breaks down.  In The Sound, Kelly is a renowned debunker, who analyzes sound waves in order to prove that spirits are just low frequency sound waves affecting the brain, and producing hallucinations, along with headaches, nosebleeds, etc.  Her blog is beloved by denizens of the interweb (rather unrealistic, because as a woman, people/guys would troll the crap out of her).  She actually makes a decent living, as she's invited to cure various people of "ghosts," and she can just hop on a plane to "ghostbust," whether at some distant farmhouse, or in an abandoned Toronto subway station.

Kelly makes a living traveling around convincing people that ghosts do not exist

After a brief scene with genre stalwart Stephen McHattie, in which Kelly points out that his grandson isn't seeing ghosts, but affected by nighttime crop dusting, she then is summoned to Toronto to check out a ghost that seemingly haunts an abandoned subway station.  She expects to be back in Detroit to attend some party with her attentive beau, but things never go according to plan in these films, and she ends up spending the night, riddled with hallucinations as the sound waves take hold.  Her most frequent line: "It's not real, it's not real."

Christopher Lloyd shows up to offer some wisdom and change some lightbulbs
The film is full of some great genre actors who do manage to steal Kelly's thunder.  International treasure Christopher Lloyd adds another horror film to his roster after his incredible performance in I Am Not A Serial Killer (Billy O'Brien, 2016), playing a friendly old coot who mysteriously works for the Toronto Dept. of Transportation in some rather dubious capacity changing lightbulbs in abandoned stations.  Suspicious??  Then there is the absolutely terrific and menacing Michael Eklund as a Detective with really shady motives.  Let's just say that his character reveals the truly tremendous power of low frequency sound waves on the human body!  Finally, Richard Gunn plays Ethan, Kelly's beleaguered husband, who gets way too much screen time chasing after her and ultimately saving her ass (I think).  Oh, also, there are hordes of moths, and perhaps ghosts.

Scary kid ghosts always seem to carry around creepy dolls

As Kelly undergoes an underground "ordeal," the film's narrative reveals in bits and pieces that there's a past traumatic event that motivates Kelly's zeal for ghost debunking.  In black and white flashbacks, we see a young girl's stumbling walk into a forest, clutching a doll very similar to the one above.  Kelly seems to be obsessed with some girl named "Emily," but we only find out who this girl is in the last 10 minutes of the film.  Indeed, the film keeps you guessing, and the incipient disorientation and "lostness" common to these types of films is present in every single frame as we are almost entirely focused through Kelly's skewed perspective.  Sure, there is some crazy, nonsensical stuff here, especially surrounding Eklund's creepy detective, and the omnipresent moths, but on the whole, spectators are rooting for the intrepid Kelly to make it out alive and sane.  Funny, like Nick Murphy's The Awakening (2011) which follows Rebecca Hall's ghost debunker, all The Sound's momentum seems to move toward Kelly's inevitable transformation from a doubter to a believer.  Like Murphy's film, Kelly experiences her own "awakening," as she tries to come to terms with her past; and the film offers one of the few (relatively) happy endings of the genre.  I was pleasantly surprised by The Sound, and since it's directed by a woman as well, I highly recommend you check it out while it's still available for less than a buck on Amazon.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Visions--Kevin Greutert (2015)

Isla Fisher plays the pregnant, and in peril, Evie in Kevin Greutert's Visions (2015)
Ah, pregnancy horror.  After a film like Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo's Inside (2007), any film involving a pregnant woman in peril is going to come off as derivative.  Insert Kevin Greutert's Visions (2015), currently streaming on Netflix, a film indebted to that earlier film with some Lifetime channel haunted house stuff thrown in for good measure.  The film opens with a car accident, and Evie (Isla Fisher) coming to in the hospital with the realization that she killed a baby (she has flashes of a kiddie seat, empty and askew in the road near her wreck).  Cue a title card proclaiming "one year later," and Evie and her husband, David (Anson Mount), have just bought a vineyard in Paso Robles, CA as a way to start over after the earlier accident.  AND Evie is newly pregnant and having a baby of her own!  She's leery of medicating, even though she was on major anti-depressants after "killing a baby," as one probably would be; yet, she starts seeing weird things that suggest that she might be "losing her mind" again, and David, in his typical way, thinks she's losing it too.

Evie's creepy mannequin would freak anyone out
Hallucinations start in earnest.  Nickels balance en masse on their edge, hooded figures bang on her front door, wine bottles explode, guns suddenly appear, and even mannequins attack, forcing Evie to tumble through a glass door.  As her husband doesn't believe anything she says, or sees, shattering glass seems like the last straw for him, and he and Evie's smarmy doctor, played by Jim Parsons, insist that she goes back on the meds "for her own good."  Meanwhile, fellow expecting mom Sadie (Gillian Jacobs) is Evie's drug free enabler, insisting that Evie knows what is best for her own body, and that she shouldn't let these men tell her what to do!  Of course, with David possibly gaslighting Evie, we side with the pregnant women, and support Evie refusing to take her meds.  Yet some crazy stuff is happening in her house, and Evie's the only one who seems to see it.  Coincidence??

Evie is a quintessential haunted heroine, broken by trauma and haunted by ghosts (maybe)
In previous posts, I've tried to outline some of the chief characteristics of what I term "the Haunted Heroine," a repeated female figure in horror just as ubiquitous as the more well known "Final Girl."  The Haunted Heroine is a fragile and sensitive soul, broken by some traumatic event, and frequently looking to start over in a new house, but seemingly haunted by spirits there.  Yet are there ghosts, or is she just crazy?  On this question the entire narrative hinges, and much of the film has spectators questioning everything our female protagonist sees, says, and believes.  Much of the film is spent rendering her unreliable as hell--all the other characters seem to think she's nuts, so why not spectators too.  Things get so bad for Evie in Visions, that her husband and friends perform an intervention!!  They suck...but not for long, because at that very moment in the narrative, the film's super-predictable climax unfolds, and exactly what you thought would happen, does.  Sigh.

***Spoilers!  Turns out that Evie was partially right.  She is seeing things, but rather than ghosts or spirits, Evie is experiencing premonitions of the future.  Somehow her anti-depressants tamper with her clairvoyance, so it's a good thing she quit them.  The film firmly comes down on the side of "not really crazy" (like Sadie).  Even more strange, every single woman who's lived in this house or on the property has succumbed to visions of the exact same night, when Evie et al. are attacked by the murderously psycho Sadie and her lame boyfriend, what's-his-name.  He's only there to shoot some people on Sadie's orders--and obviously because its fun for him.  I felt really, really badly for Gillian Jacobs when watching this film.  She deserves so much better.  I'm not going to give away the ending, or what happens to Evie, but I will describe the film's last sequence.  A couple are being shown the house by a realtor; "the wife/girlfriend" looks possibly pregnant, and as they pass one of the tables, the nickels (from earlier) seem to magically materialize, all balanced on their edge.  This final sequence makes absolutely no sense, and throws the previous events into question AGAIN, although who knows why???  This film will never have a sequel (I hope).  I appreciate the film for its haunted heroine and her traumatic travails, but I am not recommending this film unless you are looking for totally predictable genre fare with a female lead.  Then, yawn-n-n-n, go for it.

The Tall Man--Pascal Laugier (2012)

 Julia (Jessica Biel) is determined to save the children in The Tall Man (Pascal Laugier, 2012)

Pascal Laugier, known for the incredibly gory "new French extremity" film Martyrs (2008), has gone to a slightly quieter, less messy place with The Tall Man (2012), a film more in line with his earlier supernatural film House of Voices (2004).  In that film, not only was its lead Anna (Virginie Ledoyen) sensitive to ghosts, but also committed to saving the children in what appears to be a nearly abandoned orphanage.  Clearly Laugier abides by this perpetual gendered affinity, bordering on a biological urge, that women and children go together like bread and butter--when frankly, in horror films, hanging out or getting attached to kids clearly only gets women in trouble.  This way leads to madness, indeed.

The Tall Man opens with a girl's voice, local resident Jenny (Jodelle Ferland), describing how something "bad," something "evil," has come to the broken down town of Cold Rock, WA.  Children seem to be disappearing. The narrative begins with Julia Denning (Jessica Biel), bleeding and battered, having glass removed from her face, as a lawman asks how she is, and informs her that he's still searching for the boy and the other children.  Cryptic!!  Then an intertitle informs viewers that we've jumped to 36 hours earlier, and we'll find out how all this bloody mayhem has come to pass.  The film proceeds to follow Julia, a young widowed nurse trying to keep the working-class townspeople of Cold Rock healthy.  She's got her work cut out, as the film reveals in sweeping pans and tracking shots, as well as Jenny's voiceover, the poverty and economic devastation that has hit the area after its coal mines are shut down, and jobs disappear.  What's left in Cold Rock is a bunch of struggling people trying to keep afloat as their little ones vanish. These disappearances are attributed to a mysterious "Tall Man" whom people claim to have seen numerous times, yet not clearly enough to either catch him or perceive him as anything other than a mythical "boogeyman."

The Law, including genre regular Stephen McHattie and Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis), are ineffectual
Lieutenant Dodd (Stephen McHattie) and Sheriff Chestnut (William B. Davis) are stumped as to these disappearances, but we largely see events unfold through Julia's eyes, as she is the film's protagonist and point-of-identification.  Alas, as in most horror films led by female protagonists, she cannot be necessarily trusted, and not everything is as it appears.  While "the town" mourns their missing, they simultaneously are grateful if their child is not snatched. Unsurprisingly, Julia is not immune to these events, and the Tall Man sneaks into her house one night and snatches her son, David, knocking out and tying up the babysitter Christine (Eve Harlow).  Like an industrious woman in horror with a missing child, Julia goes after the abductor full throttle, hanging on to the back door of the van while being dragged by a moving vehicle.  She survives a vicious dog attack and disables the vehicle in a tension-filled battle.  She even successfully tracks the kidnapper through the woods, only to collapse in pain in the road, soon to be rescued by Lieutenant Dodd.  He takes her to the local diner, and asks the townspeople to help her, but they are all acting really weird, whispering behind her back and giving her suspicious looks.  In waitress Trish's back room, she spots a photo of her son centered in some kind of shrine, surrounded by candles. What is going on?  Are we looking at some "wicker man" shenanigans, and is the town into ritual child sacrifice?  If Julia's lived in town for a while, wouldn't she have figured out what's up earlier? Well, I'll tell you, but you have been duly informed that there are ***spoilers ahead.

Julia is captured by the Tall Man, helpless to rescue her son
As I mentioned earlier, Julia is extremely resourceful.  I would rely on her in a pinch during either a home invasion or a zombie apocalypse.  She sneaks into the Sheriff's backseat as he leads her to where her child is hidden, and then she confronts the kidnapper, who is none other than Mrs. Johnson?? (Connie Wheeler), a woman who is missing her own child as well.  In fact, she insists that in this upside down world, Julia has actually kidnapped her child, and she narrates a montage of past events that renders this plot possibility utterly believable.  So, at the film's 2/3 point, spectators are now led to question everything we know about Julia, and re-examine all the events that have occurred thus far.  In support of this new perspective, Julia's son, David (Jakob Davies) seems not that interested in leaving with her. So, wait?!  Who is David's "real" mother?  Well, when we find out, that's when the whole film goes pear shaped, even if it still maintains a good deal of tension.

David (Jakob Davies) seems afraid of Julia
***Spoilers!!  As Julia snatches the kid and takes him back to her house, the film makes clear that not only is David not her kid, but that she and Christine have been giving the town's children to "The Tall Man" for quite a while now.  He appears to reside somewhere in the basement, and kids go down there, but they never come back up.  Is Julia feeding him??   Here, it's important to explain a side plot where Jenny takes center stage.  Jenny is Tracy's daughter, and she and her abusive boyfriend, Steven, continue to make bad choices that direly affect her two children, Carol (whom Steven impregnates) and Jenny, who gets slapped around one too many times.  In her case, Jenny begs Julia to contact the Tall Man so that he can intervene.  And he eventually does.

Jenny's life with her "third mother" does not seem too bad
More spoilers**  At film's end we discover that Julia has sacrificed herself, and taken the rap for The Tall Man, so that he can continue to "save" children from their poverty-stricken and violent circumstances.  Turns out that Julia and her not dead husband have been snatching children from their homes in Cold Rock and providing them with new families that are more fitting (white, wealthy, nurturing).  Playing judge and jury for some supposed "secret organization" that resettles kids into better homes, the Tall Man "snatches" Jenny and brings her to a wealthy older woman's abode, where she appears to live a rather cushy life, far away from her abusive former life.

The Tall Man works because spectators only get the full picture in the film's last 10 minutes.  Up until that point, our imagination fills in the blanks, and the narrative's twists and turns are not too predictable.  I was waiting for the Tall Man's big reveal, imagining all sorts of diabolical half-human creatures crunching on kiddie bones in the basement.  I admit to some degree of disappointment when we find out what's actually going on, as it SUCKS to have Julia rotting away in some prison (with a possible death penalty sentence), a martyr to the "save the children" cause.  The film is smartly ambiguous enough that its "message" is not such a clear read.  Yes, the relocated children appear to have a better life, but why does this white guy get to make this decision?  What exactly is the organization for which he works as "child snatcher?" Jenny's voiceover brackets the film, as she too questions whether her new life is "for the best."  The film is open enough to let spectators ultimately decide, but really, this film does not do the poor and working-class any favors.  The Tall Man is currently streaming on Netflix, and worth giving a whirl, even as it reinforces some of the worst myths about poverty and the working class (and its narrative is limited largely to white people.)