In the Tall Grass

{Fantastic Fest} Movie Review: In the Tall Grass

Fantastic Fest and Netflix Take on American Folk Horror.  A successful return to the creepy midwest.

Courtesy of Netflix

Netflix’s genre programming has been hit or miss.  It is also readily apparent we have not loved everything they have released. When the streaming company announced their adaptation of the King/Hill short story In the Tall Grass I felt that familiar feeling creep in.  I was excited because the short story is great.  I dreaded watching it because I was worried about what Netflix would do with it. 

Right or wrong the last few Netflix horror originals with the hype of Tall Grass have felt almost sanitized.  They feel like products of focus groups and not genre inspired visions of the scary and spooky.  All of that being said….it would be safe to say you could color me skeptical about this newest film.

The movie opens up on the brother and sister pairing of Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) and Cal (Avery Whitted) as they are making their way across the country when they hear a voice calling from a field of tall grass.  Their attempts to help are complicated by the field which has a mind of its own and the fact that Becky is sixth months pregnant.

The plot is really pretty simple and the first forty-five minutes of the film work hard to build a compounding and complex system of rules.  To keep things relatively spoiler free, the world in the titular tall grass is not bound by the same rules of time and space.  That feels wholly unique and interesting.  The rest of the film plays out as a pretty traditional slasher film with one villain chasing the rest of the cast.  That is hardly a knock.  The film leans hard at the end into an elder god mythos and is clearly working to live up to the pretty perfect first half. 

The cast has solid chemistry. With child actor Will Buie Jr. and Harrison Gilbertson with standout performances.  Gilbertson plays ex-boyfriend Travis with a doe-eyed bewilderment that connects him to the audience and to the setting immediately.  With his shaggy hair and lack of polish, he is the only one who feels like he belongs in this field in the middle of the Midwest.  If Gilbertson brings this much too every role he is poised to break out.  He feels like a fully formed movie star.

Courtesy of Netflix

If director Vincenzo Natali wanted to make a scary movie using the images of American folk horror.  He is quite successful.  We get very little pagan rituals or chanting by our characters but a lot of stone worshipping and arcane ruins. If that is what you dig in a horror movie then this is right up your alley.  He captures the beauty and nuance of the native ecology all while reminding us the environment is not friendly.  It is not an easy accomplishment and when the movie accepts the challenge it almost functions as a ‘Weird’ movie giving it greater depth and complexity. 

The movie’s themes are a little more difficult to flesh out.  There is a strong pro-life message to the movie which may be unavoidable in a movie where the protagonist is pregnant (looking at you Nightmare on Elm Street 5:  The Dream Child).  Regardless of intentionality, it made it hard to get to some of the heavy more interesting themes when I had to dig through the “I am so glad you kept the baby”, or the “you are evil because you tried to have her abort it” comments that pervade any discussion regarding the pregnancy. 

When the film decides to highlight different themes it really shines. There is no doubt that this is a horror movie.  The climax of the film is as horrifying in its storytelling as it is in its imagery.  The ultimate fate of Becky is terrifying.  It clearly has King’s and Hill’s influence regarding evils older than humans and other delicious cosmic delights.  It was a perfect chaser after seeing Stanley’s The Color Out of Space last night.  They share a lot of the same horror tropes and even some similar images but it is no wonder that Tall Grass is the Netflix movie.  It is the far more accessible, far more glamorous, version of cosmic dread.  It’s not what Lovecraft would go for but it’s a hundred percent in the King/Hill oeuvre of the creepy field in the Midwest. If there is any nit to pick it would be that the grass could easily be corn and that the movie is just another iteration of “he who walks behind the rows’, but even if that’s true maybe we are due a Children of the Corn reboot.

 Did I like it? For sure. You could even say I love the first forty five minutes of the film.  It’s creepy and unsettling and adds new ideas and concepts to the canon of American folk horror.  The last half of the movie my feelings are a little mixed but because it wants to be a horror movie and works hard to situate itself as such, it’s really successful.  It feels perfect for a slightly cold autumn night as the wind blows through the grass. Folks like me, in the Midwest, recognize those sounds and will never hear them the same way again. 
When:  In the Tall Grass premiers on Netflix October 4th.  Just in time for Halloween Season.