Whilst driving across the country, a very-pregnant Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) and her brother Cal (Avery Whitted) hear a young boy calling for help amidst the tall grass fields by the side of the road. He’s lost, and naturally the two approach him to help. But of course, this being a horror film, it’s never quite so simple. Becky and Cal very quickly find out the tall grass is alive and shifting and not only that, but as another family becomes caught within the reeds it’s clear that the foliage has something sinister hidden within it.
Based on the novella by Stephen King and his son Joe Hill, In the Tall Grass wrings every inch out of a unique-but-limited concept for the use of its story. Told almost entirely within the confines of a field of tall grass, it was destined to become one of those stories that would later be deemed ‘unfilmable’. After all. the limitations of such a location would require an adept, visually-accomplished director… someone like Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Splice). Known for his stylistic direction and darkly-infused science-fiction ideologies, Natali has a supreme command of his craft like few within the genre, and it’s difficult to imagine another director handling the subject matter with as much delicacy and practicality as him.
This sadly doesn’t resonate through all aspects of production though. Depending on your opinions of King and Hill’s writing, In the Tall Grass’ first half could feel like intuitive world-building or a repeated concept that drives forward slower than the authors’ grandiose prose. Natali’s screenplay gets the job done and infuses the characters with one or two personality traits that are enough to make them stand out for a production such as this, but much like the titular tall grass, the rules and intentions of this world feel murky and underdeveloped. Whilst this is done intentionally in order to grip the audience the same way as its characters, it feels like there is a missing aspect, something to truly antagonise the grass, and this isn’t revealed until later on.
The cast are all game of course. Patrick Wilson continues to add a new interesting horror film to his resume as Ross, the father of young lost Tobin (Will Buie Jr.). Harrison Gilbertson makes a late arrival as Becky’s elusive partner Travis who looks for the two after they disappear into the grass but manages to find himself trapped within it before them. Rachel Wilson is sadly underutilized as Tobin’s mother, though this comes at the cost of elevating Wilson’s erratic and scene-stealing Ross. Slowly as the grass’ intentions are revealed and the sky above them darkens, Into the Tall Grass reveals its true directive and goes all out with them.
There are folk-horror touches throughout the film, and Natali chooses to sidestep gore in favour of discomfort and flashy sequences that harken back to his work on NBC’s Hannibal. Alongside cinematographer Craig Wrobleski they snake the camera in and out of the grass slowly and with purpose. The setting is a gyroscope of greenery where up is down, left is right, and a seemingly neverending maze fuels the intensity of emotion. Every creative shot you could think of to present the field is made useful here, to the point where I doubt the film could even manage another second of its 101 minute runtime. As the grass shifts, the sky above reverses, reeds tug and gently pull at the legs of their victims, and tracking shots embellish the maze-like nature of the setting. At times it feels like too much, and if it weren’t for the brief respite of the gaps in the grass or an abandoned building the film could easily pray on those suffering from claustrophobia easily.
In fact, as soon as the maniacal cult-like rock at the center of the grass is unleashed, the film’s mystery and threads of an intelligent twist are dropped instantly. What hooks you into the film is left buried under the mud below, replaced only with utter dread. It’s here where everyone involved shines, though it’s a matter of taste. Wilson hams it up, grimacing wide enough to break through the screen. Gilbertson and Whitted’s Trevor and Cal lay their intentions outright against the backdrop of the dark sky, and Natali unleashes every page of his sketchbook in order to create a waking nightmare. Tribes of bodies infused with grass-filled faces, blood seeping into the night sky, convulsing roots below the grass made entirely out of clawing and screaming victims – everything soon becomes hectic. It’s a nice middle ground between his work on Cube and the restrained, almost clinical presentation style of Splice.
It helps that the film never loses focus on the primary characters too. Young Tobin in particular, initially presented as a threat, offers up the heart and soul that keeps the characters together and it’s as a team they remain strong within the narrative whilst being hunted down by Wilson’s Ross. Becky’s looming pregnancy of course ramps up the tension and allows the film to wallow in a spectacularly demented birthing sequence. The last half of the film sprinkles moments like these throughout in order to deny it becoming a bog-standard slasher (albeit one with a killer who’s having a ridiculously good time).
Netflix has a pretty good track record with King adaptations with the likes of 1922 and Gerald’s Game, and in terms of filmmaking In the Tall Grass remains impeccable and on-par with the best of them. But by shifting the source material and elongating the story, the film feels aimless at some pivotal moments. There’s definitely still horror and intrigue to be found of course, and for those looking for something different across the Halloween season, there’s few films that feel like Natali’s triumphant effort here, especially considering the limited scope available from the source material. Perhaps if the narrative were streamlined along with the film’s first half, the descent into utter catastrophe would carry more tension and fear. Instead, it feels like an unknown left-turn, like you yourself are caught within the grass and unable to tell what’s coming next.
The bulk of the film feels like build up for a pessimistic and haunting end, much like the novella it’s based on. However such an ending never comes. After a weakened and fairly standard climactic battle, the narrative recedes to focusing more so on its characters rather than the fascinating and brilliant grotesque oddities we’d been given glimpses of throughout. In the Tall Grass manages to ring out on a hopeful note for its primary characters, but the possibilities of horror within the grass remain endless, and it’s there where the film is at its greatest.