‘In the Tall Grass’ Brings Vintage Stephen King Scares to Netflix 

When it comes to horror it can be the simplest premise that works best. Netflix’s “In the Tall Grass” understands this well, beginning with its direct title. Based on a novella by our preeminent man of macabre letters Stephen King, and his son Joe Hill, all this film needs and uses is one field of grass somewhere in Middle America. As with most King yarns there’s plenty of occult twists, time loops, nightmarish imagery and buried subtexts, and there’s no reason to fault director Vincenzo Natali for delivering them.

Driving into a vast American farmland are siblings Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) and Cal (Avery Whitted). Becky happens to be pregnant, the dad ran off and now the two siblings are making their way to San Diego. When they stop in front of an old church they hear the cries of a scared boy inside a vast field of tall grass. As they must the two venture in to see what’s going on. Soon they are lost within the foliage and can’t find their way out. They bump into two other people also lost inside the grassy maze, a boy named Tobin (Will Buie Jr.) and his dad, Ross (Patrick Wilson). Inside death abounds, with pets turning up covered in flies and there’s also the strange sensation that time loops back on itself, always climaxing in a horrific incident. Also into the grass steps Travis (Harrison Gilbertson), the father of Becky’s baby, also about to fall victim to the grass’s pull. But as Ross starts to slowly go mad, the group traces these strange happenings to a large stone in the middle of the field, ancient and full of a strange, terrible power.

You really have to hand it to Stephen King and now his descendant Joe Hill, they know better than anyone how to recycle used horror troupes for a new ride. It is important to remember when watching “In the Tall Grass” that never should the actual logic of the plot be taken seriously. In the spirit of “The Twilight Zone,” and long before “The X-Files,” King knew how to combine characters that could be your neighbors with the most over the top, at times absurd premises. Yet at his best it works, because these stories tap into the very essence of classic scares and fables. The recent adaptation of “It: Chapter Two” also proved this well, being a film about friendship and the perils of adulthood beneath all the creepy CGI and killer clowns. Key to the effect of “In the Tall Grass” is the directing by Vincenzo Natali, the visually keen mind behind cult hits like “Cube” and “Splice.” The cinematography is by Craig Wrobleski, who crafted some of the trippy visuals in FX’s “Legion” show. Here they turn the consuming field of grass into a living entity, with overhead shots of swaying green and close-ups of insects and menacing water drops, transforming a mundane space into a death trap. Much of the budget must have gone to the giant stone and digital coloring of crimson skies, because the entire movie takes place within this space. 

There’s a classic quality to some of the scares as the characters stumble upon dead animals swarming with bugs and members of the group slowly lose their senses, all because of this great stone dating back to an ancient civilization. Yes, it all points back to a giant rock. But in typical King fashion it’s all a vehicle for the characters’ own inner demons. Cal resents Travis for impregnating his sister, and the writing hints at a strange incestuous mindset in the angry brother, Ross is the all-American dad who makes money via real estate, wears a polo and obviously works out. The stone turns him into a barbarian and soon his real self comes out. As you can expect some people will die as Ross goes on a rampage. Becky and Tobin seem to be the only real characters worthy of our pity. It’s intelligently constructed and self-aware, much of it in the campy tradition of smaller King movie yarns like “Storm of the Century” or “The Night Flier.” Because Natali is a gifted director he delivers some truly effective images, especially a moment where the earth crumbles in front of Becky and she looks down to see a Dantenean vision of contorted, swarming human bodies like roots beneath the cursed stone. 

“In the Tall Grass” also becomes a fable about second chances as every horrific moment leads to a recycle of the timeline, giving the characters a new chance to avoid or walk back into the tall grass. Even at his most fantastical, King always has some kind of real meaning in the story. It’s easy to forget what exactly is the origin of the stone, because what is more entertaining are the people and their dilemmas.

Step into this one if you truly enjoy the kind of material King is best known for when it comes to his short stories. “In the Tall Grass” is well-directed, has some decent scares and by the end we truly care about whether certain characters might meet a tragic end. There’s not much more we can ask of Natali. If you jump and feel eerie at the thought of walking into the wrong sort of field, then this movie has done its job.

In the Tall Grass” begins streaming Oct. 4 on Netflix.