If someone fed a computer program all of Stephen King’s novels, and asked it to write something using all it had learned, it would give us “In the Tall Grass.” All the stereotypical tropes are there. There’s the deranged father and hysterical mother of “The Shining,” the temporal shifting of “The Dark Tower,” and the Americana setting attacked by an inhuman threat from “It” (and most of his other novels). The problem is, “In The Tall Grass” lacks the heart of even the most mediocre Stephen King story. There’s nothing to care about here, and even less to be scared of.
This movie struggles to make one care from the start. A conversation in the opening scene tries to introduce these characters — a brother and sister on a road trip through the Amerian heartland. However, it only establishes bare-minimum, cookie cutter traits, and is soon interrupted. The siblings are called into a grass field by a little boy, who says he is lost. These unfortunate siblings are soon thrust into a violent, otherworldly time loop that is never explained, even at the most basic of levels. Throughout this movie, the viewer is too busy trying to understand what is happening to care about who it is happening to.
Yet all it does is establish some unoriginal traits that do little to entice the reader and are soon ignored in favor of the horror plot. While Stephen King’s novels, and the best King adaptations, inject even the wildest situations with a human core, “In The Tall Grass” is utterly cold.
This film could have still been modestly enjoyable if the threat it spent all its screen time on was at least intriguing. Sadly, even that is too much to ask. No matter how inventive the camera work is or how creepy some of the set pieces are, “In The Tall Grass” fails to be frightening in any memorable way. It is easier to let one of the main characters explain why: “It doesn’t make any sense.” None of it does. Not the grass, the grass people, or the giant rock that is apparently controlling the whole charade. Grass, also, is just not that scary. What is this evil force trying to accomplish? There’s no reason for what it does other than to frighten people — and theoretically the viewer — by luring them into an endless field.
Ambiguity can be incredibly horrific when handled correctly. “It Comes at Night” and “Annihilation” are perfect examples of a mysterious concept whose inexplicability is used to frightening effect. Those movies, however, have screenwriters behind them who understand concepts like subtlety, pacing and basic character development. “In The Tall Grass” just slings as much violence and surreal imagery at the viewer as it can. Instead of making things scarier, though, the deluge just becomes oversaturated. There’s no buildup; it’s just a loose collection of ineffective pieces. Some attempts to be frightening end up being brutally laughable. The villains sing, speak in rhyme and have an obsession with Christian references, all of which come across humorously and slaughter any sort of tension.
The acting does not help, either. Patrick Wilson (“The Conjuring”) does his best, but his dedication is grating to watch when nobody else is giving even half the effort he is. The other performances are straight out of an old episode of “Goosebumps,” with the dialogue to match. Characters give melodramatic, overindulgent speeches that would’ve been cut from even the most atrocious high school Halloween productions. The conversations also run on a track, like a haunted house ride — if one has seen enough horror movies, they could literally fill in the blanks.
The final act is a tired retread of “The Shining,” without any of the deep scares or existential questions that made Jack Torrance’s story a classic. Even worse, this movie gives its female characters almost no sense of agency. They’re tokens for the men to fight over, brutally attack and threaten with sexual assault.
“In the Tall Grass” is predictable, muddled and forgettable. Skip this one.