That Stephen King, he’s so hot right now. Not that the prolific horror legend has ever been unpopular, but following the 2017 surge in King adaptations that culminated in IT‘s record-smashing box office, King’s works are suddenly everywhere again. In theaters, on TV, and of course, on Netflix. In the realm of streaming, Netflix is no stranger to King’s appeal, producing adaptations of 1922 and Gerald’s Game in 2017, and now, Vincenzo Natali‘s In the Tall Grass.
Based on King and Joe Hill‘s novella of the same name, In the Tall Grass follows an inseparable pair of siblings who wind up trapped in a Lovecraftian nightmare when they follow a young boy’s cries for help and wind up lost in an ancient, ungodly field of grass that never lets you leave. Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) is in the last trimester of her pregnancy, and without a stable partner to father her baby, she’s struggling to decide what she wants to do. Fortunately, she has her brother Cal (Avery Whitted), who joins her on a road trip to San Diego, where a family waits to adopt the unborn girl. But they never make it to San Diego.
While taking a driving break, Becky and Cal hear a young boy calling for help from inside a field of tall grass, screaming that he’s been trapped for days and begging them to come find him. When they do, they quickly realize that they’re too stuck in the grass now, and worse, nothing in that field makes a lick of sense. Once they lose sight of each other, it’s almost impossible to find one another again, their location always changing. They might be standing right next to each other one moment, before ending up on opposite sides of the field the next. Nothing in the field works the way it should, not even death. When they do eventually find the young boy, Tobin (Will Buie Jr.), his father (Patrick Wilson), and a strange, powerful rock at the center of the field, their nightmare only gets worse. And weirder.
King and Hill’s novella is a lean, contained, and extremely dark story, and as the director and screenwriter, Natali had to do a lot of work to put enough meat on the bones of the story to sustain a feature-length film. Fans of the source material will note that the first 20 minutes are extremely faithful, down to the exact lines of dialogue, but as Natali’s story unfolds, he takes some bold swings that further enrich King and Hill’s weird world of horrors and wonders. It’s tough to discuss without giving away the fun surprises, but suffice it to say, it’s a nice piece of adaptation that adds to and enhances rather than diminishing. Natali’s take on the Tall Grass is also a touch less dark than the novella’s, leaving some particularly gruesome bits on the cutting room floor.
But that’s not to say Natali’s film doesn’t pack a punch. Heads are smushed, bodies are broken, and the film finds room for a couple of good old fashioned stabbings. And it all looks wonderful. As a filmmaker, he’s always had an exceptional eye for striking imagery and In the Tall Grass is no different. The Cube and Splice filmmaker has been keeping busy on aesthetically rich shows like Hannibal and Westworld in recent years, and he hasn’t lost his touch for a perfectly composed shot. And his command of tone and tension remains equally impressive. By all reason, a field of grass should just not be scary or cinematic, but Natali makes it feel like a pulse-pounding menace — and a stunning one at that.
Aside from Natali’s spectacular eye, the highlight here is Patrick Wilson, who is deliciously cast in a role that allows him to flex some darker sides of his performative skillset we don’t get to see often enough (not to mention a glorious mustache). Thanks to his creative partnership with James Wan, Wilson has become something of a horror staple, but he’s rarely had a role that gives him so much to chew on. And believe me, the scenery will be chewed. Delightfully so.
Unfortunately, the other characters don’t fare as well, especially our leading duo, who are pretty darn bland, even when Becky’s warring with her own desires for her future. The novella has the benefit of inner monologue, which goes a long way to make Becky and Cal more memorable, but what we get here is pretty downright forgettable. Which is a shame, because as Natali’s ideas get bigger and weirder, his characters just aren’t able to take root.
The good news is that Natali’s ideas, images, and tonal command are able to shoulder the dead weight of the lead characters. The film peaks a bit early, but the ideas are ambitious, imaginative, and artfully presented taking King and Hill’s contained short and transforming it to a more expansive, sometimes confounding universe of horrors. In the Tall Grass doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s compelling and gorgeous, and yet another film on the Netflix roster I wish more people had an opportunity to see in theaters.