Because we all love Stephen King and Joe Hill and we all love to thrill at chilling campfire ghost stories, we go into the Netflix adaptation of Stephen King’s and Joe Hill’s novella In the Tall Grass looking for a spooky rollercoaster ride that will serve as the appetizer for another Halloween season. Because we respect and admire director Vincenzo Natali’s genuine horror and thriller genre street cred (Cube, The Returned, American Gods, Wayward Pines) there is an expectation of mind-twisting and original scares that will render us sleepless long and late into the chilly Autumn night. And because we know of the incredible resumes of actors Patrick Wilson (excellent and underappreciated in such fare as Hard Candy and Little Children) and Harrison Gilbertson (Picnic at Hanging Rock) we know the acting will be effortless and rich. Because of all of the above – and more – it ultimately makes it that much more disappointing when a solid bet turns into an underwhelming feature that seems only to exist to capitalize on the Stephen King craze sweeping the movies and to give Netflix an obligatory horror flick to fill out its Halloween schedule.
It all begins with such promise. A solitary car barrels down a desolate country road with a brother and sister, the sweet and melancholy refrains of a Sam Cooke tune their only other companion. We know this car and we know the two siblings driving it just like we know the dusty and empty two-lane highway that all but threatens to swallow them up. The brother-sister duo of Becky and Cal DeMuth (Laysla De Oliveira and Avery Whitted) are interchangeable with other fellow cinematic travelers in peril from such offerings as Joy Ride, Vacancy, Duel, Jeepers Creepers and Race with the Devil. The details might vary slightly, but the end result is always the same: A road weary soul(s) taken out of their familiar environment and thrust into a strange and alien world where their beliefs are challenged and shaken to the very core and where an end run time of the feature they star in does not necessarily guarantee a cathartic and satisfying conclusion. In short, Becky and Cal belong to a genre of film that has not only already covered most of the ground In the Tall Grass attempts to ply its own trade in, but covered said ground quite a bit more deftly and unerringly than this latest attempt.
A quick plot summation is in order: Becky, dealing with an unplanned pregnancy and being driven by her brother Cal out of state to give up the child to adoption, faces an unexpected detour when she hears the cries for help from a young boy originating in a giant, open field of very tall grass somewhere in Kansas. Concerned, brother and sister plunge headfirst into the field to rescue the boy until they become separated and lost themselves. What follows is an hour and forty minute odyssey of survival through Time and Space. Because, in typical Stephen King fashion, this is no ordinary field; it’s something more than any dark imagination can conjure. The rules of Time seem not to apply in this special section of tall grass and our two protagonists, soon joined by the boy and Becky’s ex-boyfriend, actually wind up going backwards and forwards in a perpetual Time loop, desperate to locate an exit from this Kansas pergotory. Along the way, Patrick Wilson (as good as he can be in a badly written part) joins the party as a deranged religious zealot, existing as an unnecessary device to continuously push our small band of heroes ever forward (and backwards in some instances).
Everything about this Netflix movie screams quality, except the ultimate execution. It’s beautifully shot, has obviously high production values with a talented cast and, obviously, has the pedigree of the King and Hill novella backing it up. Perhaps because of these boons, the tiny tears dotted throughout the movie highlight even more the shortcomings of In the Tall Grass, leaving you wanting more. It’s akin to going to a nice restaurant and ordering the pasta everyone is raving about and getting a bowl of Chef Boyardee Spaghettios versus a made from scratch culinary delight that you might have expected. You’ll eat the Spaghettios because you’re hungry and you paid the money, but you just know an hour later you’re going to be hungry for something more substantive and better prepared.
My advice? Skip In the Tall Grass and stick to King’s and Hill’s original novella, instead. The images you have in your mind while you read their words will stay with you far longer than this particular adaptation will.