In which Halloween-related marathoning has resulted in reviews of several spooky movies from the mind of the world's favorite horror author, Stephen King.
IN THE TALL GRASS
Written and directed by Vincenzo Natali (based on the novella by Stephen King and Joe Hill)
2019 has been a big year for Stephen King on screen—tied for "biggest ever" with 2017, in fact—with no fewer than four adaptations of his work produced as feature films, starting with a new Pet Sematary and the second half of a new It, and concluding with the Shining sequel that Warners had every right to think people wanted, Doctor Sleep. A big year for big films with big budgets, designed for big screens and released in the hopes of big profits, but that leaves us with the littlest one of all, Netflix's streaming original, In The Tall Grass—which means it should've been a big year for King's collaborator on the novella, Joseph Hillström "Joe Hill" King, too, since it marks the first adaptation of Hill's prose into a feature since 2013's misfire Horns, a film that I know is beloved by a few (Brennan Klein and I'm sure by somebody else, perhaps Alexandre Aja's mom), and which, nevertheless, did not exactly break huge.
Sadly for Hill's independent reputation (and in case it was unclear, yes, he's King's son, and judging by the photos possibly King's time traveling duplicate), neither did In the Tall Grass, which didn't even threaten to rise to the level of a minor Netflix hit—defined as "a movie that anyone, even crappy film bloggers, will remember a month after it's out"—while even Gerald's Game before it had managed some genuine impact. In fairness, Gerald's Game did have the advantage of being one of approximately two Netflix Originals that's any good at all, and Tall Grass is definitely not the other one.
The algorithm doesn't move dead things.
It starts out intriguingly enough, however, if not so much with its initial protagonists, college student Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) and her slightly-older brother Cal (Avery Whitted), whom we find dealing with the former's pregnancy by making a cross-country drive to San Diego where they intend on delivering the fetus to a hopeful couple. No, the intriguing part is what they find when they make a stop in Kansas next to a field of imposingly tall grass. Hearing the voice of a boy who identifies himself as Tobin (Will Buie Jr.) and who's calling for help, they enter the field and, within minutes, get themselves separated and unable to find any path back to the road. Though they can, for the most part, still hear each other, every effort to reunite fails, most jarringly when they can tell they're close, and endeavor to jump above the top of the stalks in unison. This works the first time, but on the second, Cal is nowhere to be seen. Becky realizes nobody's answering her cries anymore, either. After a while, she does find another human in the field, Ross (Patrick Wilson). He says he's Tobin's father, and claims he has some idea how to get out. But there's something about his chipper enthusiasm that she doesn't quite trust. Nor, of course, should she.
No need to go further into the details; that gets the basic gist of the thing across, that, essentially, Becky and Cal have stumbled into one of the soft places in the world which has something of a mind of its own—the Tobin whom Cal eventually finds lays down what he understands about the field, which is that it is constantly moving things around. He doesn't say, though he doesn't have to, that there's little chance it'll let them leave, and that the likeliest outcome for them is that, as dehyrdration and exhaustion take their toll, they'll all soon join the "dead things," like Tobin's dog, that the field doesn't bother with anymore.
For a while, Tall Grass is enormous fun: as long as it's playing around with its central conceit, it has a great little horror mystery going on, and the sense of claustrophobic, uncanny wrongness generated by the scenario is hard not to like. Vincenzo Natali, who adapted the novella as well as directed, even buffs up King and Hill's story for his feature, adding a fluidity to time as well as space within the field, plus an entirely new character, Becky's erstwhile impregnator, Travis (Harrison Gilberston), come to investigate his girlfriend and her brother's disappearance months after the fact, which is why he's a little surprised when he finds them at all. What Natali didn't do, unfortunately, is figure out any reason why we should give a shit, and our two heroic leads are flogged through a featureless reconciliation arc (given a weird but largely-unexamined incestuous tinge by way of Becky's brother) of the kind that could only have been tolerable if everything else was working, and by the time this arc even gets started, precious little about the film is still working. Yet by far the biggest problems with the film come directly out of too much faithfulness to the source material, and the dividing line between the effective and enjoyable Tall Grass that we started out with and the tedious and grinding Tall Grass we ultimately get can be defined so readily that it makes you mad that Natali didn't notice it himself.
Now, you could say it's when the film elects to start explaining the origins of the chaotic evil of the field, resorting to a fairly lazy rendition of the Lovecraftian thing-that-fell-to-Earth—one wonders if this film's sinister meteorite keeps in touch with its cousin in Derry—but I'll give Tall Grass this, it refrains from completely overexplaining itself, and the black rock which appears to be the locus of the phenomena surrounding the field remains something of an unknowable mystery, as well as something to break up the sameiness of the setting (which, you know, is a field of grass, except for that fucking abandoned bowling alley, which is the only structure in the field and exists solely so somebody can fail to save somebody from tumbling off its roof, thereby revealing their own cruelty in the most cliched and condescending sort of way, and I really hate this movie's screenplay).
Anyway, I'll go instead with the extremely deflating moment that Tall Grass gives its evil force a definite face, and reduces something inhuman and inchoate into something concrete and stabbable. So this would be when the film twists out its obvious reveal that Ross has become deranged by his time in the field and his exposure to the supernatural, and that he's been getting some very old time religion as a result; up until now, it's just been a collection of human types trapped in a maze without any rhyme or reason, with a keenly-felt vibe of something ancient and bored toying with them, perhaps studying them, but like a child studying a collection of ants—it reminded me a lot of one of my favorite TNG episodes, "Where Silence Has Lease," which is indeed just fifty minutes of an omnipotent asshole dicking around with the Enterprise crew for the lulz after they blunder into a spatial anomaly, except Tall Grass is hypothetically much scarier, because it doesn't have another episode scheduled next week—and that was so much more enjoyable than another harangue against religion with another Jack Torrance stalking through what amounts to another hedge maze for a solid fucking hour. So, as much as it galls me to say it, and it galls me plenty given that he's the major reason I had some optimism about this project, the moment the film becomes kind of outright terrible is when Patrick Wilson takes his place as its central figure.
But I guess it could also be a coincidence, since this is also about the point that Tall Grass, despite Natali's additions, still starts to run out of ideas about what to do with itself, and starts spinning its wheels waiting to get to its climactic freakout—there is evidently a 90 minute cut that screened at Fantastic Fest (the Netflix cut is 101 minutes), and I can't help but imagine the former is slightly better, even if it would take a real genius, or at least someone with basic facility with character, to have kept a movie about evil grass interesting for even that long; and, not to be too mean, that's not what this movie about evil grass has. But it could also be that Ross's predictable heel turn takes place at night, and nighttime was always bound to be one of Tall Grass's biggest problems.
Because whatever issues I have with Natali's screenplay, Natali's direction is absolutely above average, at least as long as its daytime; and he gets an inordinate, even shocking, amount of mileage out of his disorienting, computer-boosted shots of his human objects walled off into tiny little pockets of hell inside an endless field. The daytime imagery of Tall Grass ranges from the absurdly but effectively garish (like his loop-de-loop camera moves, or the shots that start out distorted beyond all reason because what we're looking at is a CG close-up of a droplet of water) to the mystically-inflected and genuinely fucking terrifying (particularly the overhead shots of the field where only movement, but no actual figure, is visible, and the blades of grass become an abstract pattern vibrating upon darkness). Of course, sometimes it's just totally stupid: whatever he thought he was doing with the shots that mingle green CG tentacles of grass with the red CG insides of a human body, it's unbelievably tacky in the execution. But, again, the good stuff holds almost exclusively in the daytime, when Craig Wrobleski's cinematography can capture the oppressive heat and refracting greenness of the setting in shots that turn the 2.35:1 widescreen into a horizontal cage that rarely even acknowledges the presence of a sky, but the viewer can, you know, still see shit. Night presents a challenge that Natali and Wrobleski only very belatedly overcome, and a whole damn lot of Tall Grass takes place in (a simulacrum of) cool blue moonlight that often barely outlines the characters while everything else merges into textureless darkness.
It's probably realistic (indeed, probably more readable than "realism," as applied to a field in the middle of Kansas, would strictly dictate), but Goddamn is it boring to look at. Considering that one of Natali the Screenwriter's innovations was a wonky flow of time within the field, it's unclear why "nighttime" ever needed to come up at all, but either way Natali finally arrives at a good use of darkness only at the very end. He does it by cheating, too, and throwing a lightning storm at the proceedings. On the plus side, a lot of Tall Grass's very best imagery comes out of that lightning storm, and I'd be a bastard not to admit that Tall Grass has some of the best, most affecting horror movie imagery of 2019 in this final sequence, above all another one of those overhead shots of the field, except pushed all the way beyond the impossible: as the field moves in to claim its ultimate prize, the stalks of grass shudder in what looks like orgasmic ecstasy, and in this moment we get more of a sense of the field as the body of a incomprehensibly malign intelligence than in all of Wilson's wasted rock-based monologues put together. Also, there are tribal dudes made of grass or something, and Mark Korven has provided a score here that I think I rather like, but also feels like it's entirely possible might have been compiled out of archival music from every racist South Seas adventure of the 1930s.
So maybe not every one of Tall Grass's gambits is necessarily a winner, but by this point, it barely matters anyway, because the story has long since become, in the first instance, that entirely inadequate family melodrama, and, in the second, a battle to the death with a madman raving about his rock, and it gets just unbearably tiresome, even as the film itself convulses violently with some of the best-looking horror to come out this year.
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