How do you make a field of grass scary? If you’re Stephen King and his son Joe Hill, the answer is simple: Turn it into a sentient, supernatural maze from which there is no escape, and add some daddy issues for good measure. Those are the broadest strokes of In The Tall Grass, King and Hill’s novella originally serialized in Esquire magazine and now the subject of a typically middling Netflix film adaptation. The streaming service seems to have a knack for commissioning original films from in-demand creatives, then flattening the results into just-okay entertainment designed to replace the direct-to-video market bulldozed by streaming. And In The Tall Grass is no exception.
The creative in question this time around is Vincenzo Natali, director of such cult horror films as Cube (1997) and Splice (2009). Natali’s style jives well with the organic puzzle box that is the eponymous field itself, where time and space move in unpredictable, non-linear spurts and where, as sad-eyed little field goblin Tobin (Will Buie Jr.) puts it, “The tall grass doesn’t move dead things.” Everything else is variable, as Cal (Avery Whitted) and his heavily pregnant sister, Becky (Laysla De Oliveira), discover after they pull over on the side of a lonely Kansas highway so Becky can vomit. Before they can pull away, they hear a little boy calling for help from the field, whose grass grows well over 10 feet high and sways dizzily in the strong prairie breeze. Against their better judgement, they go in after him.
It’s a slim setup, and at first it’s not clear at all how this story will be able to sustain a 101-minute movie. Then more characters start stumbling out of the grass and into Cal and Becky’s purview, including Tobin, his panicked mother, Natalie (Rachel Wilson), and his demented father, Ross (Patrick Wilson), the Jack Torrance of this particular tangle of green. Unfortunately, Wilson’s scenery-chewing performance is misjudged, bringing a camp factor that clashes with not only his co-stars’ performances, but also everything else in this otherwise serious film.
A few months later, or maybe at the same time (time moves differently in the grass, remember?), Becky’s boyfriend, Travis (Harrison Gilbertson), comes looking for her when she doesn’t show up at a prearranged meeting with the couple planning to adopt their baby. Cal absolutely hates Travis, which, combined with Ross’ unhinged violence, provides plenty of toxic energy to feed the mystical forces that sustain the field. This leads to a wild, folk horror-tinged climax during an earth-shaking thunderstorm, by far the most visually inventive scene in the film.
One opportunity presented by the move from page to screen that Natali embraces is the power of a good sound mix. The film version of In The Tall Grass creates a sense of disorientation by playing with audio volume and depth—an experience that, save for those who have a full-fledged home theater system, plays better on the big screen. On the other hand, certain other aspects of the film, like its always-disappointing CGI blood effects, may be less noticeable at home than in a movie theater.
Either way, the movie is a mixed bag, well shot and well acted enough to mostly keep the viewer’s attention, but meandering enough to frustrate at the same time. It’s bookended by flat, brightly lit, purely functional scenes that don’t quite erase the memory of the surrealist horrors that unfold at its peak, but do come close. Stephen King and Joe Hill fans should also note that there are a handful of Easter eggs scattered throughout, mostly in the parking lot of the church that sits on the edge of the field. But if you’re not a big enough fan of either of them to catch the references, you can probably skip this movie as well.