Special guest contributor Brea Grant (HALLOWEEN II, BEYOND THE GATES) delves into what makes Angus Scrimm’s Tall Man character so terrifying…
In the history of horror films, it’s the bad guys who stand out. They stay with us, past leaving our seats, into our cars, and then into our dreams — or nightmares — as the case may be. One of the most memorable villains of the modern horror era is the The Tall Man, first introduced in 1979’s PHANTASM. In the struggle of creating a modern day Big Bad, I think we can look at the Tall Man for inspiration. What makes something scary? How do you differentiate this one from the last twelve we’ve seen on the silver screen? What Don Coscarelli did with the Tall Man is iconic and strikes fear into all of us at a deep level.
I examined the character of The Tall Man, looking into urban legends of the Slender Man, the urban legend which is believed to have been inspired by PHANTASM’S antagonist. His squinting eye, his aged appearance, and how little he speaks. Size alone has implications for fear; a large man’s ability to grab our childhood selves. He can overpower us, take us in his arms but not in the way adults are supposed to and take us to a place where we would never want to go. He is a walking metaphor for helplessness. The fact that he surrounds himself with people of a diminutive size only emphasizes his height and his power of over us as children, and our childhood fears can follow us into adulthood.
There is something distinctly creepy about The Tall Man’s clothing. Wearing the uniform of a mortician, an altogether dark career path, invokes images of death. The Tall Man is destined to wear his form-fitting, black mortician suit and skinny tie for eternity as he rounds up his victims. Something about no longer being a mortician but to be forced to wear his mortician clothes conjures up both a trapped feeling within the Tall Man, displayed perfectly by Scrimm, but also implies that death is coming for us. There is no escaped.
You can’t discuss The Tall Man without mentioning his superhuman abilities — telekinesis, strength, shape shifting, not to mention opening up various portals. What struck me the most when watching PHANTASM recently was how scary the metallic spheres were. They are fast. They fly through the air. And they are full of weapons. It’s a smart bomb with a tracking device controlled by a mad man. Good luck surviving, kids.
While the obvious references to Jason and Freddy remain, the Tall Man carries his own hefty weight in the realm of horror villains. Coscarelli developed a frightening character whose intelligence, weaponry and general demeanor make him stand head and shoulders above the crowd. With PHANTASM, the writer/director left a legacy that fills the Internet with pages of photos, drawings and imagery of the Tall Man, not to mention the references of him within the pages of Slender Man phenomenon. He’s scary. He’s fear incarnate for many of us who relate our fears to death and helplessness. He remains iconic because the Tall Man reaches down to the depths of what we are scared of and reminds us that those fears are still with us.