On a weekend that sent most reviewers to movie theaters eager to praise or pan a psychological thriller about a mentally ill stand-up comedian, Netflix debuted “In the Tall Grass,” a Canadian horror film based on a 2012 novella by Stephen King and Joe Hill.
Hold on: Why is a movie based on a work by this bestselling father-and-son team not making headlines? Why didn’t it attract Hollywood A-list actors or a big-name director? Why is it making its premiere on a streaming service rather than as a big-budget feature film? Actually, there are a number of ways to answer those questions.
First, this isn’t the first time a film tied to King has made its first appearance somewhere other than the big screen. Aside from all those well-hyped miniseries from the late 1970s through the 1990s – miniseries such as “Salem’s Lot” in 1979, “It” in 1990, “The Tommyknockers” in 1993, “The Stand” in 1994, and “The Langoliers” in 1995 – there were a number of made-for-television movies, such as “Sometimes They Come Back” in 1991, “Quicksilver Highway” in 1997 and “Desperation” in 2006, among others.
“The Night Flyer,” directed by Mark Pavia, was shown on HBO in 1997 before being released theatrically in 1998. In 2004, “Riding the Bullet” received a limited theatrical release, but did poorly at the box office. “Dolan’s Cadillac,” starring Wes Bentley and Christian Slater, was released direct to video in 2009. “Mercy,” loosely based on King’s short story “Gramma,” also was released straight to video in 2014.
More recently, Netflix has debuted adaptations of “Gerald’s Game,” based on King’s novel of the same name; and “1922,” based on his novella of the same name.
The source material behind “In the Tall Grass,” originally published in two 2012 issues of “Esquire” magazine, does not necessarily lend itself to a full-fledged feature film adaptation. Much of its horror is subtle and cerebral.
The film opens with siblings Becky and Cal DeMuth driving along a narrow ribbon of asphalt, traveling through the Midwest on the way to San Diego. Becky is six months pregnant. The viewer eventually learns that Travis, the father of the child, left her because he was not prepared for the responsibility of parenthood.
The pair stops in the middle of a vast field of grass near an abandoned church. A young boy named Tobin cries out from the field, claiming he is lost and needs help. They also hear the voice of his mother, Natalie, warning the child to remain silent.
Becky insists that they try to rescue the boy. Cal enters the tall grass first, followed by his sister. They immediately become separated and soon realize that the distance between them changes even when they aren’t moving. The field of grass possesses uncanny physical properties: both space and time are distorted within its borders.
Some malevolent force is at work ensnaring unwary travelers in the tall grass. By the film’s midpoint, Cal, Becky, Tobin and Natalie, along with Tobin’s father Ross, have all fallen victim to the phenomenon. Arriving a bit late to the quandary is Travis.
Sounds like a fascinating premise, doesn’t it? For the first 45 minutes, “In the Tall Grass” manages to strike a wonderfully eerie tone. The landscape is both beautiful and menacing. The characters reactions are realistic: Their lack of caution is understandable given their concern for a child’s well-being. They don’t abruptly panic and run screaming through the field: It takes them time to realize how bad the situation really is. That slow descent into terror is very effective.
Ironically, somewhere in the middle of the film, “In the Tall Grass” loses its bearings. Director Vincenzo Natali supplants the source of the conflict, giving the tale a specific antagonist. The story begins to meander, with overlapping plotlines that focus on family dynamics instead of survival. The aberrant qualities that make the field so dangerous are given a tenuous backstory that actually diminishes the film’s disturbing atmosphere.
Sometimes, less information is better. Keep the unknown nameless and inexplicable or run the risk of nullifying the viewer’s suspension of disbelief.
The cast turns in solid performances, with Laysla De Oliveira and Avery Whitted playing the DeMuth siblings, Harrison Gilbertson as Travis, Patrick Wilson as Ross, Rachel Wilson as Natalie and Will Buie Jr. as Tobin. In his role as Ross, Wilson channels some of Nicolas Cage’s over-the-top madness.
Even though it feels like it runs 40 minutes too long, “In the Tall Grass” stands out as an innovative permutation of various horror tropes, fusing the supernatural with science fiction and evoking elements of H.P. Lovecraft and other genre giants. For much of the film, Natali strikes the right tone: brooding and desperate, with unexpected peril hiding in plain sight. The director adds a number of graphic montages that are reminiscent of Ken Russell’s films.
“In the Tall Grass” joins a special niche of the natural horror subgenre involving particularly pesky plants. There have been a number of adaptations of John Wyndham’s 1951 post-apocalyptic novel “The Day of the Triffids,” including a 1962 film starring Howard Keel and Nicole Maurey; and a 1981 BBC limited television series. More recently, movies such as “The Ruins” and “The Happening,” both released in 2008, have featured sinister shrubbery.
Because of the originality of its premise and its penetratingly ominous atmosphere, “In the Tall Grass” can’t be easily dismissed. It has moments of genuinely effective drama and suspense and it provokes a true sense of dread for the viewer. Just don’t be surprised if you lose the narrative along the way and find yourself wandering amidst the tall grass trying to figure out what exactly happened to the main characters.