Review: In The Tall Grass
Tabby Burnett doesn’t find much frightening in Netflix’s adaptation of Stephen King.
When you think of the horror genre in its most blanket, catch-all sense, what expectations do you have? (If indeed you expect anything from horror films and don’t avidly avoid them like the plague). Creepy hotels, sure. Towns with sewer clowns, dope. Jump scares, gore, that slow building of tension that leaves your hands sweating and a blanket over your noggin (Free Solo was by far the most stressful
horror documentary of last year). Creepy brides, disfigurement, possessed children, satanism, rituals, murder, cabins in the woods and Florence Pugh wearing flower crowns. The list goes on and on. What was not on my set list of expectations for the horror genre was sentient grass.
In the Tall Grass originated as a novella written by Stephen King and son, Joe Hill. Directed by Vincenzo Natali, the Netflix adaptation follows the same basic narrative, but expands it into a feature-length web of supernatural paradoxes (I’ve now seen twice and it still makes about as much sense Bohemian Rhapsody winning Best Editing at last year’s Oscars). After hearing a young boy’s cries for help from the side of the road, siblings Becky and Cal enter a vast, overgrown field of tall grass in an attempt to find and rescue him. After losing each other and their way back to the road, it becomes clear that something is keeping them apart. As more characters dive into the fray, the film follows their attempts to reunite and escape, whilst avoiding whatever, or whoever, is hunting them.
As someone who is relatively short, I can confirm that tall grass is actually pretty scary. Imagine wandering into what is essentially a never-ending maze: there’s limited food and water, you’re exposed to the elements, have lost your friends, have no shelter and can’t see beyond your immediate surroundings. I can feel the outdoorsy readers shaking their heads in smugness. “Ah!” you say, “But all you have to do is look to the sun! It’s a natural compass! And as for finding your friends, a good hearty game of Marco Polo will solve that situ!” First of all, I bet you’re really fun at parties, and secondly, what if it’s cloudy and the grass is sentient and transports you around as it pleases? And the only way to avoid being transported is to be, um, well… dead? Now you’re stumped. Tough luck, looks like you’re stuck in there with the rest of us.
In the Tall Grass begins with a worthwhile concept: claustrophobic, inescapable and high stakes (one of the characters is pregnant). There’s a tension here. On first viewing, there are enough twists, turns and unexplained instances that make it, if not compelling, then at least interesting enough that you want to keep watching. On a practical level, there’s a satisfying use of visuals (for the most part). People manically running through grass is rather aesthetic, the use of aerial shots adds nicely to the expansiveness of the setting and a rotating camera angle contributes, on a couple of occasions, to the supernatural strangeness of the situation. The sound mix helps add to the idea of the grass as a living and breathing thing, though it is a tad inconsistent at times. The acting isn’t award-worthy, mirroring limitations set by a lacking script.
In the Tall Grass is incredibly melodramatic at times. Many tonal beats don’t land and it’s difficult to get attached to characters because you’re too busy trying to figure out what on earth is happening to them. Character work and depth take a back seat to the bizarre unravelling of the plot. The dramatics of the script can sometimes fall flat because it takes itself too seriously, “Five little fingers on its face and you will be redeemed!” and “Unless this isn’t about you. This is about me!” are two examples of moments that could have worked at the level of political critique (the film clearly wants to say something about ideas of religion and worship), but don’t quite make it.
Ultimately, the film leaves you with more questions than answers. A lot more. On the first watch, this was somewhat intriguing. On the second, it was downright infuriating. The most irritating thing about In the Tall Grass is that the initial concept held a lot of promise.
Tall grass is scary. In the Tall Grass is decidedly less so.