Killtoberfest 2 – #18: Burn, Witch, Burn / The Tall Man

In All, Movies by Kyu

What’s scarier? A stranger? Or discovering that someone you thought you knew has been hiding something? That they aren’t really who you thought they were at all. Today’s pair of Killtoberfest 2 movies are all about that moment when the bottom falls out.

First up, 1962’s Burn, Witch, Burn (aka Night of the Eagle).

Based on a Fritz Leiber novel, this was written by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, which explains why it feels at times like a feature-length Twilight Zone episode. The best thing about it is how this potential tale of the supernatural refuses to tip its hand one way or the other.

The story concerns the Taylors, Tansy and Norman. Norman is a professor of psychology whose specialty seems to be the irrational human impulse towards superstition and belief in the supernatural. Tansy, his wife, is a witch. Norman’s reaction when he discovers this is, I think, a combination of shock and disgust, as if Tansy has been infected. In a way she has; infected with the belief that, through the use of charms and spells and other things, she can influence reality. It’s these charms that she says has protected Norman from harm, and she becomes particularly upset when, with the air of a man pouring out the last of his alcoholic wife’s booze, Norman burns all of her witching paraphernalia.

The rest of the film is spent with us (and Norman) deciding whether or not the subsequent run of bad luck they endure is the result of Norman stopping Tansy’s witchcraft or not–ie., whether or not this stuff is actually real. This culminates in a beautiful little scene where a witch casts a spell in front of Norman–burning a stack of playing cards while insisting that his own house is on fire. The tension has little to do with any sense of personal danger; it’s all about the question of whether or not Norman 1) believes and 2) is willing to admit that he believes.

Honestly, I didn’t think the movie was all that great. “Solid” is perhaps the right word for it; it’s ably constructed, decently directed and acted. And the US release of the film starts with a charming, William Castle-style gimmick, in which an announcer tells us that the film has been cursed, but it’s okay, he’s going to read the counter-curse for us. Ultimately the story is probably just too thin to work as a feature film. It would have been top shelf Twilight Zone, though.

Next, The Tall Man (2012).

It’s essentially impossible to talk about this movie without discussing the twist. But I’m going to try, because this is another Netflix Instant film worth seeing.

The first half or so is a relatively standard horror movie, and not even a gory one at that. This is surprising because the film is the first American venture of New French Horror director Pascal Laugier, who is responsible for 2008’s Martyrs. That movie was torture porn taken to its logical conclusion, but it got there by an extremely twisty path that kept shifting your allegiance. As it turns out, it’s not the ultraviolence that interested Pascal so much as the plot structure, because he repeats it here. You cannot possibly guess where The Tall Man will end from its beginning, and that’s an excellent thing. Discussions of the film’s overall quality is almost besides the point; if you’re a horror movie fan, or a movie fan in general, this is one of those twists that is so mind-blowing you should see it, just to feel something you’ve never felt before. Personally, my head was full of “what” until the film finished slowly explaining what it had just revealed.

Here’s the set-up: a nurse (Jessica Biel) and single mother lives in a small, poverty-stricken town, one of those places where things used to be better ’till the mine closed down. Lately, children have been disappearing, spirited away by a figure some in the town have taken to calling “The Tall Man.” Biel’s friend, a teenage girl who doesn’t speak, claims to have seen the figure. This warning goes unheeded, however, and Biel returns home one night to find that her son has been taken. She gives chase, going through hell to get her kid back. Where the movie goes from there, I wouldn’t dream of saying. But the end result is fascinating.

The real questions the movie is exploring are pretty interesting; I’m not sure if I agree with them, but I do have some sympathy for the viewpoint behind what takes place. If Martyrs was about the lengths people will go for truth and peace, The Tall Man is about what we’re willing to sacrifice for our children. For some people, that’s everything; for others, not nearly enough. Both sides constitute an ongoing tragedy… or, if you like, a horror story.

Hungry for more Killtoberfest? Click here for more horror (but not horrible) reviews.