Since he’s one of the most prolific writers on the planet, it’s not surprising that Stephen King produces more than a few clunkers along the way. I admittedly haven’t read the novella by King and his son Joe Hill that inspired Vincenzo Natali’s cinematic adaptation premiering on Netflix. But if the mediocre In the Tall Grass is any indication, the source material was no great shakes, either.
The story starts out promisingly, with Cal (Avery Whitted) and his very pregnant sister Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) driving together on an isolated Midwestern road bordered by a huge field of tall grass. (Cal’s eyeglasses amusingly recall those worn by the ill-fated brother at the beginning of Night of the Living Dead, which began much in the same way.) When they stop by the side of the road so Becky can throw up as a result of her condition, they hear the cries of a small boy begging for help from somewhere within the field.
Lost in the weeds.
The siblings wade in to find the helpless boy (Will Buie Jr.), who tells them his name is Tobin and that his parents Natalie (Rachel Wilson) and Ross (Patrick Wilson) are lost somewhere within the grass as well. This leads to an unintentionally comic and seemingly endless sequence, featuring most of the characters desperately calling out each other’s names while wandering aimlessly. Similar moments are repeated numerous times throughout the pic, and they soon become more agonizing for viewers than the onscreen figures.
Cal and Becky eventually find the little boy, who turns out to be one of those typical Stephen King adolescent creations who’s at once adorable and creepy and prone to making such pronouncements as “If you don’t pay attention, they go away.” He also tells Cal, who seems to have an unnaturally close attachment to his sister, that Becky will die soon.
The boy’s father soon shows up as well, acting in normal if concerned fashion. But this being a Stephen King tale, he turns out to be not quite the friendly figure he initially appears.
By the time Travis (Harrison Gilbertson), Becky’s ex who’s been searching frantically for her, enters the proceedings, the story has gone seriously off the rails. It’s revealed that the field has some sort of mystical power, fueled by a mammoth rock located at its center and having something to do with an abandoned church nearby. Oh, and time travel is involved, too.
Got all that? If so, you may be in the minority, since writer-director Natali (who has demonstrated impressive cinematic flair in such films as 1997’s Cube and 2009’s Splice) proves unable to make the simultaneously simplistic and convoluted plot developments remotely coherent. Which may ironically be for the best, since the more understandable they become, the more ridiculous they seem.
In the Tall Grass is at least impressive on a technical level. Cinematographer Craig Wrobelski manages to find every conceivable way to make tall grass visually ominous, with Mark Korven’s spooky score and the ambient sound design making valuable atmospheric contributions as well.
None of the performers are able to make their schematic characters particularly interesting, with the exception of Wilson. The actor, who is leaning in heavily to the horror genre with his work in the Conjuring and Insidious films, performs here with a gusto suggesting that he’s more than happy to use his all-American good looks and natural appeal for more, well, insidious purposes.
Production companies: Copperheart Entertainment, Netflix
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Harrison Gilbertson, Laysla De Oliveira, Avery Whitted, Will Buie Jr., Rachel Wilson
Director-screenwriter: Vincenzo Natali
Producers: Steven Hoban, Mark Smith, Jimmy Miller, M. Riley
Executive producers: Gloria Fan, Jonathan Levin, Vincenzo Natali
Director of photography: Craig Wrobelski
Production designer: Oleg Savytski
Editor: Michele Conroy
Composer: Mark Korven
Costume designer: Ginger Martini
Casting: Chelsea Ellis Bloch, John Buchan, Jason Knight