In the Tall Grass

Can grass ever be scary?

Another week, another Stephen King adaptation. This time out it’s the turn of Netflix with their production of In the Tall Grass. The film is based on the novella co-written by King with his son Joe Hill. Adapted and directed by Vincenzo Natali the story is a simple one. Becky Demuth (Laysla De Oliveira) and her brother Cal (Avery Whitted) are driving across America. Becky is six months pregnant and whilst stopped at the side of a road due to her morning sickness they hear a child calling for help from the field of tall grass beside them. Playing good Samaritans they both enter the grass to assist. That is the pretty much the whole premise but of course coming from the mind of Stephen King things start to go rapidly downhill from there. 

Time and space don’t follow the natural order of things in the grass, once you’ve taken a step into the field chances are you aren’t getting out alive. Once you also factor in the obligatory creepy child, Tobin (Will Buie Jr.) and his somewhat seemingly unhinged father Ross (Patrick Wilson)  the stage is set for some surreal mind-bending horror.

It is a fairly entertaining slice of the supernatural but is unfortunately let down by stretching its wafer thin plot over a far too long running time. The original story is only forty pages long. It is a quick and easy read with some disturbing images that lingered with me far after finishing it. However, it seemed obvious that they would have to pad the story out to fill a feature length running time and that’s exactly what they’ve done.

The first half of the film is actually a pretty faithful adaptation of the short story. The new material kicks in when Travis (Harrison Gilbertson), the father of Becky’s baby, turns up in search of the missing siblings. It seems the field really plays tricks on you as only hours have passed inside but Becky and Cal have been missing for weeks. The character of Travis is an invention for the film and essentially becomes the main protagonist for the second half.

Unfortunately he doesn’t really bring anything new to the story and just becomes another body to run around in the grass shouting a lot. This seems to be most of the film’s characters default position and primarily is used to further pad out the running time, as are shots of grass blowing in the wind. Lots and lots of grass blowing in the wind. What starts as atmospheric soon becomes boring and repetitive.

In the Tall Grass starts off nicely, quickly ramping up the feeling of dread. You know things are slightly off and the tension starts to ratchet up as Becky and Cal soon realise something is very wrong indeed. I’ve always been a fan of director Vincenzo Natali since his debut feature Cube which actually shares some similarities with this one; characters lost in a deadly maze. He always seems on the verge of hitting the big time with some really quirky and excellently directed movies.

Nothing is a personal favourite and highly recommended. His career seems to have settled into making some solid episodes of popular TV shows including Westward, Lost in Space and the sadly unaired Tremors pilot. Natali has done another solid job on In The Tall Grass. It looks fantastic, especially the early sunlit scenes as Becky and Cal drive across Kansas, with the cinematography bright and crisp in complete contrast to the horror that’s to come. Once lost amongst the grass the direction is suitably moody as things start to unravel.

As previously mentioned, the lingering shots of the grass waving in the breeze start off effective but could do with being trimmed extensively as the film drags on. Things are marred somewhat when we get to the nighttime scenes, particularly when the band of lost souls reach the rock that stands at the centre on the field. I know that filming these sorts of scenes is a lot easier on a soundstage where you can control the elements but the set does come across as quite fake looking. The night skies are obviously computer generated break the illusion somewhat, especially after the beautiful shots of the bright blue skies earlier. 

The cast, small as it is are on the whole adequate rather than outstanding. I’ll admit to not being familiar with any of them except for Patrick Wilson. Laysla De Oliveira probably comes off best with a solid performance as Becky. Less convincing was Avery Whitted as her brother. Wilson is always watchable and his manic turn as the less than sane Ross is definitely the highlight even if he does go slightly over the top at times. He presents a genuine threat and is effective as the films antagonist. 

Ultimately the film is let down by its barely there plot that is padded out far too much. I’m not sure why someone hasn’t commissioned a Stephen King TV series that adapts some of his plentiful short stories. With a running time of about forty five minutes In the Tall Grass could be a perfect adaptation of the original prose. Some of the more disturbing imagery from the book has also been left out which dilutes the effectiveness somewhat. The film certainly doesn’t evoke the same feelings as the written word, culminating in a slightly more positive ending which feels out of place.

As it is, it’s another adequate but not exceptional movie which is a shame. In the pantheon of King adaptations it’s certainly no Shawshank Redemption but neither is it a Maximum Overdrive or a Dreamcatcher, and makes for a perfectly adequate pre-requisite for Doctor Sleep.

In the Tall Grass is available to watch now on Netflix.


Updated: Oct 15, 2019

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