Like Charles Dickens and Christmas, Halloween is intrinsically tied to the Master of Horror, Stephen King. Since the 1980s, movie adaptations of King’s works have scared and thrilled audiences (with varying degrees of success. Now, just on the heels of It: Chapter Two Netflix has delivered a new spine-tingling entry for the canon, adapted from a story by King and his son, Joe Hill. Directed by Vincenzo Natali (Cube, Splice), In the Tall Grass remixes a number of the author’s favorite elements for a familiarly spooky — but not too scary — yarn.
On their way West, Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) and Cal (Avery Whitted) stop on the side of the road somewhere in middle America. The timing isn’t great; Becky’s pregnant and still suffering from morning sickness. But in the distance somewhere in the field of grass by the road, she hears a panicked child call for help. Becky and Cal wander in but can’t seem to find him, and eventually, they too are separated and trapped with another family: Tobin (Will Buie Jr.), his father Ross (Patrick Wilson) and Natalie (Rachel Wilson).
The Tall Grass is a mysterious kind of evil, a place that does not adhere to the laws of physics and space, trapping its victims in a continuous loop until it draws them to an ancient dark force at its center. After weeks with no news from Becky, Travis (Harrison Gilbertson), her ne’er do well boyfriend, goes searching for the two missing siblings and also falls into the Tall Grass’ clutches.
It’s to Natali’s credit that these stalks of grass can look menacing at all. He plays with close-ups, optical illusions, and expansive wide shots that turn give the labyrinth holding our poor characters hostage a hellish soul. In the distance, there’s an abandoned bowling alley that’s inexplicably at the edge of the grass and a creepy looking church that holds the grass over any kind of god. Perhaps it’s to connect modern day religion to the ancient cult that worship the grass, but the movie never does get into anything too deep. It’s a simple premise that keeps it’s themes surface level, no more profound than your average haunted hall of mirrors.
On top of the scares, King fans should delight in the handful of nods to his previous adaptations. There’s a hint of Children of the Corn in the setting’s painful isolation and the unknown evil presence that stalks through the grass. There’s an old car that resembles Christine in the church parking lot off the side of the road. Wilson’s dad character looks to suffer a similar descent into madness that befalls Jack Torrance in The Shining and Dr. Louis Creed in Pet Sematary. King also favors impossible to escape scenarios, whether it be from an evil car in Christine, a crazed fan in Misery, a supernatural killer clown in It or tied to a bedpost a la Gerald’s Game. A field of billowing grass feels right up his nightmare alley.
While it’s not the sharpest of King’s stories, Natali’s cast redeems the film’s shortcomings. Patrick Wilson is delightful as a real estate father turned mad by the grass’s evil source. His deranged expressions and the grass’ unpredictable nature gives him everything he needs to be a fantastic villain. Of the victims in the grass, Gilbertson’s character has the most expressive arc. After thinking he may have lost his girlfriend forever, now he has a chance at redemption — and saving everyone’s lives.
The movie’s emotional core lies with Travis and Becky, who prior to entering the grass is debating on whether or not to keep her baby. On this point, the movie stumbles as it dips into clichés about putting pregnant women and their babies in danger but remains unclear on its ultimate effect. However, as far as flaws go, it’s not fatal and doesn’t distract too much from the movie’s real evil: the menacing but peaceful looking grass swaying gently in the breeze.