IN THE TALL GRASS (2019)
Directed by Vincenzo Natali
Like father, like son. As per pop, Stephen King, Joe Hill is an accomplished horror writer who has written such novels as Horns, The Fireman and the frankly epic N0S4A2 (seriously, give that one a read!). In The Tall Grass was one of two collaborations he’s done with dear old dad: a novella about man vs nature, and the dangers of going off the beaten track. It’s now a Canadian-made horror, with Vincenzo Natali (Cube and Splice) behind the camera available on your/ your mate’s Netflix account. Thus far the streaming giants have had a middling record on King-related work, with a brilliant take on Gerald’s Game matched by a so-so take on 1922. Unfortunately, this is more in line with the latter than the heights of the former.
Going into the titular tall grass are Becky (De Oliviera) and her brother Cal (Whitted), who may also fancy her a bit. Midway through their drive, to meet a potential new parent for the baby she’s expecting, they get split up investigating voices from a nearby field: a boy and his mum. Little Tobin and his mother Natalie Humboldt may sound mere metres away, but they have been stuck in there for a while. The family patriarch Ross (a scenery-chewing Patrick Wilson) is also somewhere in there trying to help, along with Becky’s ex, and father to her fetus Travis (Gilbertson). Only there’s no way out because the field around them keeps shifting, with its endless dense rows and the nearby church changing places and realigning. To make matters worse, it transpires the lot of them are in a time loop of some sort. Different versions of them keep showing up in different places, corpses appear then go, and what feels like a night or two between the blades lasts for months outside.
The director’s earlier outing Cube did a commendable job of putting half a dozen folk into a labyrinth-like situation and following their struggles to escape. However, a big difference is that Cube used its confined concept to give them intriguing puzzles to work out and tensions to resolve. In other words, given its minimalist set-up, the characters and plot had to come first. Whereas this time around the largely unremarkable B-Movie cast has far lesser material to work with, save for a few underdone arcs and lots and lot of shouting. To be fair, the first act is fairly accomplished with impressive cinematography. King once wrote that a limitation with showing line of corn-rows onscreen is they just look like lines of corn-rows instead of whatever foreboding setting is in your head. However, In The Tall Grass gets around this. The oppressive walls of green look genuinely intimidating, and leave you anxious as to what the heck’s in there with our increasingly baffled ensemble. The problem is that when we find out, about a third through, it’s something of an anti-climax with everything revolving around an ancient rock covered in mysterious etchings. This old rock has the powers to help people find their way to freedom again, but can also make them not want to and not want anyone else to. This adds up to a tired possession campfire tale in a weird place, with bad CG, one interesting character design (you’ll know when you see it) and some science fiction distractions.
Some of the sci-fi elements are actually pretty cool and represent a bold departure from the source material. It’s also an unnecessary one. Long-term readers may know I’m a sucker for a bit of time-travel. However, here its mechanics are severely underdeveloped, with the temporal displacement feeling like a flimsy means to prop up the repetitive scares than an organic direction for the plot to go. As such, it gets too silly long before the excessive running time is up – annoyingly, this would be a great episode for the new Creepshow instead of a hundred-minute flick. Some of the horror elements are more successful, with enough head-crushes and bone-crunches in the third act to satisfy and shock some viewers. That’s if it hasn’t alienated them beforehand with its increasingly convoluted storytelling. The more separate elements are introduced then the less clarity it has – which is a big issue, as the busy narrative has scant dramatic stakes. Hence there’s little sense of consequence throughout, and few reasons to really care what happens. Put simply, like the grass the script could really benefit from a trim.
As a Stephen King property, this is not an especially memorable one. It’s not even the best to take place in an overgrown field (that’d be Children of the Corn). However, it is among the more disappointing ones I’ve seen lately, given how much potential the elevator pitch has. Perhaps the messy flow is a piece of form underlines meaning, with our confusion intended to echo the characters’ discombobulation. Even if this were the case though, it still makes for an uneven, and often frustrating, viewing experience. Don’t expect to lose yourself in it as much as be lost.
In The Tall Grass is available on Netflix