Film Review | In the Tall Grass: Beware the violent vegetation

Written by the father-son horror scribe duo of Stephen King and Joe Hill, this slice of single-setting horror is both an effective and affecting journey into the heart of darkness

In a world that barely allows even the most established of artists to stretch their wings for fear of alienating ever-diminishing, ever-distracted audiences, it’s refreshing to have unmoorable luminaries like Stephen King about, who can dictate terms without suffering nary a consequence.

Riding something of a second renaissance in the wake of the hugely bankable ‘IT’ remake duology, the world’s most famous horror author is also making his presence known, once again, on our smaller screens, establishing a fruitful relationship with streaming giant Netflix, which now continues with ‘In the Tall Grass’, an adaptation by Vincenzo Natali of a novella co-written with his own son Joe Hill, serialised in the pages of Esquire Magazine in 2012.

The risky allowance here is that King-Hill-Natali have posited a horror story whose main antagonist appears to be malignant grass. In lesser hands – M. Night Shyamalan circa The Following, please stand up – the results would likely have been little more than a rotting vegetation heap of unintentional comedy. However, this canny set of horror fiends has instead concocted something deliciously fiendish to help usher the Halloween advent calendar along.

A heavily pregnant Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) is en route to San Diego with her doting brother Cal (Avery Whitted), planning to give up her baby for adoption as its would-be father, Travis (Harrison Gilbertson), has decided he does not want to be in the picture. Stopping by an old church in the middle-of-nowhere stretch of road, the pair hears a cry for help from what sounds like a distressed child, whom they later discover to be Tobin (Will Buie Jr.).

But as they step into the tall grass, they quickly find out that there is nothing straightforward about this labyrinthine stretch of greenery, even as they encounter Tobin’s parents Ross (Luke Wilson) and Natalie (Rachel Wilson).

The Canadian writer-director Vincenzo Natali made a name for himself with the claustrophobic sci-fi thriller Cube back in 1997 – precisely the kind of high-concept but low-budget genre fare that would continue to endear him to audiences ever-hungry for cult kookery.

His obsession with enclosed spaces would continue with Haunter (2013), and so In the Tall Grass’s one-location setting feels like the natural continuation of an established career trajectory.

But while Netflix’s notoriously homogenised look is very much accounted for (there’s a slickness to the photography that would perhaps have been absent in any other Natali feature), there’s no sense of this being a rush-job for the director.

Liberally expanding on the short novella while keeping its thematic roots (ahem) intact, Natali crafts a well-designed chiller, cleaving to the very best of King and Hill’s capabilities of tugging at universal themes of familial pain and trauma, as well as the tyranny of conventional societal expectations.

As things escalate and the atmospheric monstrosity at the core of the story gains a more physical shape, what could have been just a horror theme park ride expands into something queasier and deeper, without the film needing to spell out or overly intellectualise anything. In other words, Natali makes good on his reputation as a cult filmmaker with a firm finger on the pulse of horror: he crafts another worthwhile feature in that genre’s contemporary echelons.

The verdict

In the assured hands of a reliable quasi-visionary Vincenzo Natali, the slim source material is transformed into a more-than-adequate pre-Halloween chiller to pass the time while glued to our favourite streaming service. It would have been better served by the one-episode anthology format, but it nonetheless succeeds in creating a beguiling sense of escalating dread, held together by a solidly coherent thematic thread.

In the Tall Grass is currently streaming on Netflix