In the summer of 2012, Stephen King and his son Joe Hill released a two-part horror novella in the pages of Esquire. It was their second time collaborating as creative partners, and the result was one of the gnarliest stories either had ever conceived. Called In the Tall Grass, as the title implies, it did that trademark King thing of finding terror in a seemingly innocuous concept—in this case, a field of tall grass. It was a mesmerizing, memorable piece of writing, and so King fans have hotly anticipated its film adaptation since Netflix announced it, especially with a director like Vincenzo Natali (known for films like Cube and Splice) attached.
Unfortunately, the stellar source material had a rough transition to screen. In the Tall Grass has a fun, pulpy vibe that will make for an entertaining couch watch when it hits Netflix in October; unfortunately, like too many direct-to-stream horror movies of late, it feels unmemorable—almost generic. For a story so shocking and grim, the film is surprisingly safe, to its own fatal detriment.
That’s not to say In The Tall Grass is a total failure. Natali has a great visual sense, and loads the film with eerie camerawork and splashy special effects sequences. That helps accentuate what is a mostly simple, straightforward story. The film opens with Cal (Avery Whitted) and Becky (Laysla De Oliveira), a pair of siblings on a road trip who get distracted when they hear a young boy’s voice coming from a field of tall grass. Becky’s pregnant, and her maternal instinct is seemingly kicking in, so she and Cal enter the field to help find the boy and return him to his parents.
But this is no ordinary grass, and stepping inside means they can’t just step back out. This is a field where time bends like the wind, where only dead things are spared, and where nothing is quite what it seems. Cal and Becky are immediately separated and start encountering bizarre things: a dead dog, a spilled purse. Cal finds the boy, Tobin (Will Buie Jr.), while Becky finds his father, Ross (Patrick Wilson)—a man both friendly and mysterious, who might just hold to the key to getting out, if he can even be trusted at all.
The film also introduces a character named Travis (Harrison Gilbertson), the father of Becky’s baby who wanders into the story right when it needs him and who fills in some gaps that expand the plot into feature film length. Travis is both a necessary character and a slightly obnoxious one; there’s a convenience to his appearance that bogs the movie down in places, and also morphs King and Hill’s narrative in unexpected ways. That’s to be expected, but the changes don’t feel as seamless as they should, and at times they soften what’s otherwise a very grim, upsetting story. Travis isn’t the sole example of this, but it’s easy to pin some of the blame on him.
Fans of the novella will be thrilled to see some of its goriest, strangest stuff make it to screen. Natali certainly isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty; he could have zigged away from some of the choices King and Hill made in his third act, but doesn’t at all. Still, there’s a muted effect to scenes that should have a bigger impact, for reasons that are hard to really narrow down. Maybe it’s that the weird mythology of the grass never quite comes to life; it’s hard to be afraid of faceless forces when the rules aren’t made super clear. Mystery is always appreciated, but when there’s nothing much else to hold onto, that lack of clarity is more of a bother.
Luckily, In the Tall Grass has Patrick Wilson, who is having a lot of fun as Ross, a man under the spell of the forces that have bound these characters together. He isn’t afraid to go big or bold, and his hammy take on the role is a joy to watch. This isn’t Wilson’s first time at the horror rodeo—he clearly learned a thing or two on Insidious and The Conjuring movies—and he knows how to elevate the material. If only everyone else was operating on his level, In the Tall Grass could have found a happy home in the pantheon of horror camp.
As it stands, the film isn’t a bore but never really takes off. A lot of opportunities feel missed, a lot of scenes lack the gravity they deserve, and overall, it’s hard to see this one sticking in anyone’s memory for too long. To make a lazy pun, In the Tall Grass gets lost in its own maze and never sends up the flare signals that it should to get out.
2.5 out of 5
Feature image: Netflix