Adapting is a risky business. It can go incredibly well where the adaptation supersedes the source material as with The Godfather. It can also go unbelievably badly such as the 1996 adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau. In The Tall Grass – adapted from the Stephen King and Joe Hill novella of the same name – never reaches either of the above highs or lows. Instead, like most recent horror offerings from Netflix, it languishes in a sticky quagmire between good or bad without ever settling on average. Not even a maniacal Patrick Wilson performance can raise it out of the muck.
The heavily pregnant Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) and her brother Cal (Avery Whitted) are on a road trip to San Diego to give Becky’s baby up for adoption. At the halfway point they pull over and hear a boy, Tobin (Will Buie Jr.), calling for help from within a field of tall, dense grass. Entering to investigate Becky and Cal soon find themselves trapped in the shifting maze of stalks with Tobin, his unhinged father Ross (Patrick Wilson) and his mother Natalie (Ruth Wilson). A day or perhaps months later Becky’s no-good boyfriend Travis (Harrison Gilbertson) shows up and things get even more complicated.
In The Tall Grass styles itself as a horror film but it lacks the scares to back that genre claim up. It often comes across as an overlong Riverdale Halloween Special instead. The young trio of Oliveira, Whitted and Gilbertson take the material far too seriously for its own good. It’s only Patrick Wilson that seems to know what he’s working with here. By now the prime stud in the Blumhouse stable, here Wilson always seems on the edge of maniacal laughter and he bites into the material like a starving man presented with a prime ribeye steak. It’s just a shame that the rest of the cast seem to want to treat this like an ‘elevated’ horror movie when it’s clearly Lovecraftian pulp.
Understandably there’s a lot of grass in the film and it gives In The Tall Grass serious texture when combined with the squelching mud and carved meteorite at the centre of the field. Though not the only Lovecraft-inspired film to feature a corrupting alien rock this year, In The Tall Grass is probably the more confused of the two. People not only become lost in the unnaturally natural maze but the flow and sense of time is mixed around too. The film often revisits previous events from a different perspective but adds little to them beyond a sense of predictability.
Predictability comes more into play the more the film goes on. Of the many horrors Netflix has served up over the last number of years from 1922 to Hush to The Haunting of Hill House almost all have had a similar flat look. In The Tall Grass almost escapes this by virtue of its setting but the darkness of the church or bowling alley scenes returns to a grey drabness better left in 2007. Despite the previous individuality of writer and director Vincenzo Natali’s work, In The Tall Grass still retains a made by committee feel. In the end it comes back to adaptation; a novella such as this would be better suited to the recent Creepshow revival not the feature treatment. In The Tall Grass shows that the madness of one good character actor is no cure for banality.