Legendary horror novelist Stephen King and his son, the acclaimed horror and comic book author Joe Hill, have collaborated twice on the page, each time coming up with something memorably creepy and squarely in what one could probably call the family tradition. The second of those two tales, “In the Tall Grass,” has now been made into a feature-length film for Netflix by director and writer Vincenzo Natali, the Canadian director who first got on the map in 1997 with the mind-twisting Cube.
Cube was about six random people trapped in a massive, labyrinthine structure for reasons unknown who must solve its deadly mysteries to escape. So on paper it kind of makes sense that he would adapt a story about another half dozen characters caught in another eerie maze-like scenario, this time a vast field of grass in the middle of nowhere (specifically Kansas).
We meet the first of these folks, the very pregnant Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) and her brother Cal (Avery Whitted), as they are driving cross-country to San Diego, where Becky plans to have her baby far away from the siblings’ home. Momentarily pulling over on a desolate road next to the massive stretch of grass, Becky and Cal hear the voice of a young boy calling for help. They enter the field to find him and are quickly separated, their calls to each other increasingly distant; as night falls and exhaustion sets in, Cal finds a dead dog and then the boy himself, the frightened yet vaguely creepy Tobin (Will Buie Jr.).
Meanwhile, Becky encounters Tobin’s father, Ross (Patrick Wilson), who talks Becky into coming with him and promises her safe passage out of the grass. It’s soon clear, however, that Ross is not exactly sane. As two more people enter the picture — Ross’s wife Natalie (Rachel Wilson) and Travis (Harrison Gilbertson), the father of Becky’s baby, who has been following her and her brother — it also becomes evident that the field, and an ancient rock at its center, can somehow warp both time and minds.
In print, “In the Tall Grass” is either a longish short story or a shortish novella, depending on your point of view. Its classic King setting — a seemingly normal piece of land that hides an enigmatic secret — and surreal, hallucinatory series of events create an atmosphere of intense dread and disorientation. Natali’s film manages to capture some of that in the early going, but it’s obvious after about 40 minutes or so of the movie’s 100-minute running time that he’s having trouble stretching the story to the length required for a feature film.
He’s not helped by a lackluster cast or characterizations. While Wilson is the most recognizable face and chews the grass — I mean the scenery — unashamedly as he goes fully and gloriously psycho, the rest of the cast are generally unremarkable. The film also shifts its point of view once it introduces Travis (a character created for the film who does not appear in the original source material). His journey unexpectedly becomes the central character arc of the narrative, even though he enters the proceedings after the others and comes across as more or less a Norman Reedus knockoff.
But the arrival of Travis again points up Natali’s problems with expanding a story that might have worked better as an episode of, say, Shudder’s new Creepshow series or a similar horror anthology series. The third act devolves into a series of gruesomely unpleasant attacks and a parade of supernatural CG imagery that not only makes little sense but looks distressingly cheap. The film ends differently from the story, and on a somewhat satisfying note, but by that point the viewer is mostly past caring how it all wraps up.
Both King and Hill have plenty of stories that are suitable for adaptation, and in fact we are in the midst of an ongoing wave of films and TV shows being developed from material by both father and son. But not everything written by either man is workable on the screen, and we’ve seen other filmmakers run into trouble when trying to fit some of King’s shorter tales into full-length movies. It’s unfortunate that something they wrote together falls into the latter category, and that the interesting but hit-and-miss Natali is the one who couldn’t grow this into something more fertile.
In The Tall Grass is available now on Netflix.