VIFF 2019: In the Tall Grass

Who better to pull off a horror movie set entirely in some tall grass than Vincenzo Natali, whose breakout hit Cube was set entirely in a bunch of cubes? Natali’s turned out a series of mostly underrated films since his 1997 debut—his early 2000s follow-ups Brainstorm and Nothing deserved more attention than they got, and it’s hard not to think that Natali’s had a rough time for being an ideas-heavy filmmaker working somewhere near the edge of B-horror. It makes you wonder how Cronenberg would have done if his best cerebral gross-outs hadn’t come at the height of cinematic fascination with bodily dissolution and physical mutation. Then again, Cronenberg abandoned the really gooey stuff at the turn of the century, and Natali’s big mistake ten years later in Splice was going full schlock in the third act. In the Internet age, the machine’s ghost is the source of horror. Hence his newest, with ghostliness galore.

In the Tall Grass is a Stephen King/Joe Hill adaptation, and it feels like it. It’s superficially similar to Cube, replacing the gradually emerging sci-fi cosmic horror of that movie with its more demonic equivalent as characters fight to keep their sanity in an endlessly iterative environment. You might think that looking at the cubes for the whole movie sounds a lot better than looking at grass for the whole movie, and you’d probably be right. But it’s a testament to Natali’s skill that the grass doesn’t get too boring, either. Rather than resigning itself to monotonous visuals, Tall Grass continues to find surprising new ways to put field to film.

But before I get ahead of myself (you’ll find the movie does too), here’s the setup. Siblings Becky and Cal are en route to California for the sort of mysterious reason we assume will come out in the second act. During a roadside stop next to a field of grass big enough to disappear into the distance, they hear a young boy crying for help. He’s lost, and moments after running in to help, they are too.

What follows is reasonably predictable if you’re familiar with King, Natali, supernatural horror, and/or movies where Patrick Wilson plays a handsome stranger. Other people appear in the grass, Becky and Cal slowly learn the rules of the supernatural maze, horrors are discovered, and relationships break down. In the Tall Grass has a number of tricks up its sleeve, and they’re diverting enough for a good chunk of its runtime. Unfortunately, the last third of the movie is one of those mostly-dark, mostly-raining drags of a climax that spends too much time putting all its pieces in order and not enough being plain old scary. It’s a fun ride until it isn’t. This time, the third act isn’t too shlocky, but you kinda wish it had been.