[Fantastic Fest review] Netflix horror film ‘IN THE TALL GRASS’ should have been cut to a short

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

IN THE TALL GRASS

Not rated, 90 minutes.
Director: Vincenzo Natali
Cast: Laysla De Oliveira, Avery Whitted, Patrick Wilson, Will Buie Jr., Harrison Gilbertson and Rachel Wilson

AUSTIN – Stephen King novels are a tough egg to crack on the big screen. Filmmakers can capture a myriad of aspects from his text, but how he invites you into the minds and worlds of his characters are not always made to be squeezed inside a two-hour box. King’s long-winded and incredibly detailed style lends itself well to literary form.

I have not read the 2012 horror novella IN THE TALL GRASS that King co-wrote with his son Joe Hill. But a common complaint I have heard about the 60-page story is that it lacks King’s usual level of detail. 

After seeing Netflix’s upcoming screen adaptation of IN THE TALL GRASS, I can only imagine that it’s a tall order to keep things interesting when the narrative takes place entirely in a grass field. There are only so many ways one can describe characters getting lost and screaming for each when separated. 

Now imagine stretching that concept across a film canvas.

Director Vincenzo Natali (CUBE, SPLICE) deserves credit for his attempt to keep the hooks in you. He sweeps through the grass setting in compelling ways. But after a while, the wheels begin to spin, and you can’t escape the feeling that IN THE TALL GRASS should have been mowed down to a short. (Perhaps an episode on King’s rebirthed CREEPSHOW anthology series on Shudder.)

The film kicks off like many King adaptations do: characters traveling somewhere. Like THE SHINING and PET SEMATARY, we start with a family driving on a country road. But instead of audiences following parents with their kids, it’s a sister and brother.

The sister, Becky (an excellent Laysla De Oliveira), is six months pregnant with an illegitimate child. The father, Travis (an equally as good Harrison Gilbertson), got cold feet and wasn’t ready for the responsibilities of being a parent. The brother, Cal (Avery Whitted), genuinely cares for his sister. He’s a man without reciprocation of love, and he fills that hole in his heart by stepping up when Travis does not.

L_R: Harrison Gilbertson, Laysla De Oliveira and Avery Whitted in ‘IN THE TALL GRASS.’ Courtesy of Netflix.

On the journey (which is a destination I will let the movie share if you still feel inclined to watch it), the siblings pull over to the side of the road when morning sickness takes it toll on Becky. She vomits and has a heart to heart with her brother about the importance of sticking together. Suddenly, they hear a young boy crying for help from beyond the tall grass. Uncertain about whether they should stay the course or assist, eventually Becky (as a soon-to-be mother) decides to help. 

Cal parks the car across the street at an old, abandoned church that has other vehicles stationed outside (hinting that doom may be on its way). They venture into the weeds as the boy’s cries intensify and other mysterious voices make themselves known. Within minutes, they are disoriented and are in deeper than what seems possible, and they have lost one another. Soon they learn, something is not quite right about the field.

Admittedly, Natali crafts an exciting opening sequence. He wastes no time and cuts to the chase. There are enough breadcrumbs of intrigue to have you invested in the characters. But the scene mainly works because it’s terrifying to imagine yourself in that situation. It’s clear Natali was aiming to makes audiences scared of tall grass like moviegoers are of the water because of JAWS. Truthfully, the opening manages to make me never want to step foot in a field that has grass taller than me. So, for that, the film earns its terror. 

Once you learn how the field works and what the root cause of it all (and it’s a silly reveal that should have been abandoned in favor of more ambiguity), you begin to feel your curiosity slip away. The repetitive nature of the situation dampens your desire to keep going, even if Patrick Wilson is killer-good as a fellow victim of the grass. He’s a father searching for his son (Will Buie Jr.) and wife (Rachel Wilson). Wilson embraces the ridiculousness of his realtor character, and it’s a treasure to behold (much like his other horror roles).

IN THE TALL GRASS has many of the elements required to shape into a fine creep show, most notably committed performances. There’s even some disturbing imagery, one of which will likely never exit your memory. But in the end, it’s not enough to mark it a quality experience from start to finish. Some things work, but a lot more doesn’t.

Grade: C+

IN THE TALL GRASS premiered at Fantastic Fest. An encore screening will be held on Monday, September 23 at 5 p.m. Visit fantasticfest.com for further information. Netflix will release the film globally on their streaming service on October 4.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.