Horror at SXSW: 'Jeff,' 'Compliance,' and 'The Tall Man' Stretch the Definition of Horror

Horror at SXSW: 'Jeff,' 'Compliance,' and 'The Tall Man' Stretch the Definition of Horror

Mar 22, 2012

Is it the subjective nature of horror that leaves it open to so many different interpretations? There are those that would argue that The Black Swan is definitely a horror film; that Se7en isn’t a horror film at all, and still others that define horror by how much gore is on the screen. SXSW presented three films that challenged the definition of horror, some more successfully than others.

Jeff might immediately seem of interest to horror fans due to its gruesome subject matter. The documentary interviews three subjects with direct ties to serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer -- neighbor Pamela Bass, medical examiner Jeffrey Jentzen, and Patrick Kennedy, the cop that kept Dahmer company, getting him to talk, while police removed desiccated human remains from Dahmer’s small apartment. The film’s intent isn’t to terrify, but the acts Dahmer committed, and the matter-of-fact way they’re discussed in the film, bring a subject we’ve long been desensitized to back to life.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Jeff is one of the greatest serial killer movies ever made -- an intimate, sobering look at the ripple effect that someone’s aberrant behavior can have on the lives of those they come into contact with. While Jentzen remains stoic and procedural, for the most part, relaying sickening forensic information with a clinical eye, Patrick Kennedy is a natural storyteller, putting the audience in the shoes of someone who was right there with Dahmer on the day of his arrest.

The interviews are intercut with re-enactments of Dahmer going about his day-to-day. There’s nothing salacious or exploitative about these scenes; they seem to exist to contrast Dahmer’s mundane daily life against the horrors described in detail by the interview subjects. One could argue that they’re not wholly necessary, but director Chris James Thompson uses them judiciously to break up what would be nothing but a feature-length series of talking heads.

Many of us have been waiting for Pascal Laugier’s follow-up to his French shocker Martyrs for a few years now, so it’s with that anticipation in mind that I should tell you to lower your expectations for The Tall Man. Although its plot -- a mysterious urban legend called The Tall Man is stealing kids from a poverty-stricken town in Washington state -- sounds like the stuff of nightmares, The Tall Man is more of an abduction thriller than a horror film, and not a very good one at that.

I can see how the screenplay would’ve attracted Jessica Biel as an actress. It’s a role with a lot of emotional turns, and presents specific challenges as the script shifts halfway through the story, taking a left turn from mystery to social drama. As a movie, though, it never quite works. Laugier’s toiling with the seed of a good idea and interesting moral questions, but his own commitment to constructing the first half like a horror film (despite it not really being a horror film) leads to pacing issues as the film progresses.

The Tall Man’s biggest crime is that it’s boring. Twists are revealed in a confusing way that lessens their impact, and clarification after the twists are doled out so slowly that it’s almost frustrating. Biel does good work in The Tall Man, but it’s in the service of a movie that I can’t strongly recommend to anyone.

Compliance is a film that bears almost no earmarks of the horror genre, yet it’s one that’s more powerfully disturbing than the most gruesome slasher. It’s a slightly fictionalized retelling of the fast food strip search phone scam that made national headlines in 2004. Here, Ann Dowd plays the fast food manager who, under the direction of what she believes to be a police officer (Pat Healy), subjects a teenage employee (Becky played by Dreama Walker) to psychological torture and physical abuse.

If you heard the original news story and thought “how could it get that far?,” Compliance methodically reveals how the situation could be manipulated to that point, in a believable way. It doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable or infuriating to watch Becky’s humiliation at the hands of people who thought they were doing the right thing, but you can see how it happened. Almost every frame of the film is squirmy, alerting every part of your brain that what you are seeing is just plain wrong. You want to shout at the screen for them to just hang up the phone, to end the situation like intelligent adults, but by the time anyone does anything, it’s far too late.

Compliance is horrifying; it is scary, but not in the way horror films usually come packaged. It’s funny to me that the film on this list that looks and feels the most like a traditional horror film, The Tall Man, is actually the least troubling of the three. Perhaps it’s due to the real world connections shared by Compliance and Jeff; that the world outside is far scarier than anything anyone could ever make up.

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