In the Tall Grass (2019)
Canadian director Vincenzo Natali knows how to use limited locations to excellent effect — after all, his breakthrough film was Cube (1997), a low-budget, high-concept science fiction/ horror hybrid that saw a disparate group of strangers trapped in a maze constructed of a series of cubes each containing some kind of deadly trap. On that one, Natali had one set and simply lit and decorated it differently for each new ‘cube’ — a triumph of creativity and craft over budgetary shortcomings. Since then he’s kept hoeing his row in the genre space (2002’s cyberpunk thriller Cypher and 2009’s body horror Splice are his best works), and now brings his prowess to bear on a project with similar locational constraints, the horror thriller In the Tall Grass, currently streaming on Netflix.
Based on a short story by dad and son team Stephen King and Joe Hill, In the Tall Grass follows brother and sister Becky (Laysla De Oliveira, who will soon be seen in another Joe Hill adaptation, Locke & Key) and Cal Delmuth (Avery Whitted), who are on a cross country drive to San Diego where heavily pregnant Becky plans to give up her baby for adoption. Stopping near a dilapidated church, the sound of a young boy, Tobin (Will Buie Jr.), calling for help lures them each into a nearby field of, well, tall grass. And from there things get strange and dark, and violent.
In the Tall Grass is a film where much of the fun comes from discovering what happens as the characters do — or slightly before them, as the case may be. With that in mind, you can walk away from this one with the recommendation ‘solid if unspectacular mystery horror’ and know that, if you’re a fan of King and Hill’s mid-to-upper-level writing and aren’t particularly in the mood to have your mind utterly blown, man, you’ll probably have a good time with this one. But to explain why we have to wander into light spoiler territory, so feel free to bail now if you’d rather hit up the film with its surprises more or less intact.
King has taken us into a creepy crop field before, of course; his 1977 short story, Children of the Corn, collected in 1978’s Night Shift anthology, was adapted for the screen in 1984, with the tale of a cult of pagan children sacrificing adults to their weird god spawning no less than nine feature films. Like Children of the Corn, In the Tall Grass is kind of folk horror-adjacent; one character, Tobin’s dad Ross (Patrick Wilson giving an enjoyably manic turn) succumbs to a kind of primal religious mania while lost in the field of grass, where it’s not just the geography that’s topsy-turvy, it’s the chronology too. Time loops and twists in on itself in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the surreal, low budget 2017 masterpiece, The Endless, or even 2016’s Blair Witch. We wind up following characters in more than one timeline, and those timelines cross over in interesting and at times, chilling ways. Characters find the corpses of people they know, subjectively at least, to be well and truly alive, while in the film’s most effective scene, a character being murdered sees not only his own dead body lying nearby but an endless stream of himself in a steadily advancing state of decay.
The reason for all this is alluded to but not clarified, with a giant stone monolith in the center of the field being the hard edge of the uncanny that the unfortunate characters have brushed up against to their detriment. Ross floats an idea or two about the significance of the big rock — having touched it he’s received a direct dose of whatever juju is in play here, giving him insight and insanity in roughly equal measure — but the script, also by Natali, keeps the focus pretty firmly on its characters: doubtful Becky, controlling Cal, who possibly harbors incestuous desires for his sister, and, joining the party late, the awesomely named Travis (Australian actor Harrison Gilbertson), Becky’s ex-boyfriend who has somehow tracked her down to this remote corner of middle America to have A Serious Talk about the baby she’s carrying. To be frank, it’s hard to get too deeply invested in their issues — the cast isn’t quite up to carrying the emotional weight of the soapy scenario — and the characters themselves aren’t committed to solving the mystery of their predicament beyond the immediate necessity of survival, so in the end we get neither an engrossing dramatic arc nor a satisfying solution to the film’s supernatural mystery.
Which means that In the Long Grass falls short of greatness, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a drive-by, especially if you’re a fan of King and/ or Hill’s short fiction (and I certainly am). King’s written oeuvre has been strip-mined for filmable IP for over four decades now and if you spent a goodly chunk of your formative years boring through VHS rental tapes of Maximum Overdrive (1986), Silver Bullet (1985), Creepshow (1982), Sometimes They Come Back (1991), and Firestarter (1984), then you’re going to get a pretty familiar feeling sitting yourself in front of In the Tall Grass — and Natali’s film is undoubtedly a cut above the rank and file of King adaptations, even if it falls definitively short of the likes of The Shining (1980), The Dead Zone (1983), Stand By Me (1986), and The Mist (2007). Nonetheless, we are very much in King Country here (moreso than Hill — if his name weren’t on it, I would not have picked his voice being present), and the emotional receptors his work plugs into are certainly being hit, albeit not as hard as in the best adaptations of his writing.
Which is a long way of saying that In the Tall Grass sits a couple of notches above the median, although it’s still very much in the middle of the pack. For fans it’ll tick the right boxes, and for casuals with properly adjusted expectations, it’ll pass muster. Bookend it with a couple of similar offerings — perhaps 1922 (2017) and Gerald’s Game (2017) – and you’ll come close to replicating the feeling you had working through that dog-eared Night Shift paperback back in the day.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson