Stephen King is often asked where he gets the inspiration for his novels, and though the end results are (more often than not) admirably complex and inventive, I’m convinced they usually start with the simplest of notions: Take anything (literally, anything) and insert the word “scary” or “killer” in front of it. Car, dog, prom, mist, pet cemetery…

In 2012, when King and his son Joe Hill collaborated on a short story for Esquire magazine, it was grass. Very tall, very thick grass, but a simple field of grass nonetheless. You can almost picture the King family driving through Kansas on vacation, noticing a seemingly endless expanse, and turning to each other with a knowing nod.

Fast-forward to 2019, and writer-director Vincenzo Natali (Splice) has taken In the Tall Grass and run with it for Netflix, and though it does have a few suspenseful and nerve-jangling moments, the film ultimately buckles under the burden of being yanked farther than a Stretch Armstrong—Natali attempted to make a full-length feature film out of something it takes barely an hour to read.

Siblings Cal (Avery Whitted) and very-pregnant Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) are halfway to California on a cross-country road trip when they stop to let morning sickness have its way. As Becky mops her chin, they hear a lost young boy yelling from inside a nearby field and decide to run in to rescue him. It takes no time at all for the pair to realize, however, that this is no ordinary meadow; no matter how they try, they can’t find each other (much less the kid), and even just standing still seems to take them farther from the road.

Once the sun sets, the creepiness of the field (yes, it’s a character unto itself) is ramped up, and Cal finally finds the kid, a youngster named Tobin (Will Buie, Jr.), so disheveled it’s apparent he’s been lost in the field for weeks, if not months. He’s got a dead crow in his hand, shows Cal the corpse of a dead dog, and is spouting nonsense about The Rock “knowing”. At the same time, Becky bumps into Tobin’s increasingly creepy dad Ross (Patrick Wilson) and is dealing with her own issues, and then we’re introduced to Travis (Harrison Gilbertson), the father of Becky’s child (who is only mentioned in passing in the short story but shows up here as a full-fledged character).

Eventually, In the Tall Grass gets caught up with time loops, alternate realities, and other-worldly portals—none of which is even hinted at in the source material—and the film starts tripping over itself, adding layers and layers to a plot that frankly doesn’t need it. Give credit to Natali, however, for conveying the terror of the setting. Along with cinematographer Craig Wrobleski, he hits it out of the park visually with excellent use of both sweeping aerial panoramas and disorienting handheld shots. The largely unknown cast, too, delivers by keeping the tension and fear at a palpable level.

It’s often said that there’s nothing scarier than our own imagination (I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that hanging in needlepoint form above King’s fireplace), and the same holds true here. The tight and terrifying story that Uncle Stevie wrote with his son is a compact work of true horror, but after being so thoroughly diluted (and altered wholesale) for the big screen, In the Tall Grass winds up being the more forgettable component of a Netflix-n-chill kinda night.


2/5 stars