Think of the simpler than simple terrors of “The Mist,” “Christine” (demonic car), “Cujo” (demonic dog), “Pet Sematary,” Firestarter.” Stephen King never had to get too fancy or complicated to find his horror hooks, and set those hooks in us.
The novella “In the Tall Grass” takes us back to the general “Children of the Corn” idea, that there’s menace in a vast grassy field that turns into a supernatural maze (“The Shining”) the moment you step into it.
Yes, his son Joe Hill co-wrote it, but there’s ground the master has covered before here. Thank goodness the film that comes from it is tight enough to let us skim by the over-familiar and find some chills.
Laysla De Oliveira plays the very-pregnant Becky in “Grass,” driving cross-country with brother Cal (Avery Whitted) to start over in San Diego, when a blast of morning sickness makes them stop in America’s flatlands.
There’s a weathered, abandoned church across the road, with cars in the parking lot. But in the field next to where Cal pulled over, there’s a child’s cry.
The grass? It is tall. So when Becky answers back, the child’s “I’m LOST in here…I’ve been stuck in here for DAYS!” makes just enough sense.
Becky overhears a woman trying to shush the child, but no matter. It’s “Cal to the rescue,” as he plunges in. And disappears.
Becky has just enough time to establish that favorite trope of modern horror — darn it, “No SIGNAL?” — when she follows.
And damned if she doesn’t lose track of Cal just as Cal has lost track of the child.
Calling to each other while standing still makes no difference. They sound as if they’re wandering further apart.
Panic, darkness, and then a grubby kid (Will Buie Jr.) comes upon Cal. That’s the same moment that the kid’s dad (Patrick Wilson) stumbles into Becky.
The father is a realtor. Trustworthy?
The kid? He’s got answers, explained in Stephen King creepy child-speak. “The tall grass knows everything,” he says. There’s this big “rock.” “That’s how we got in…that’s how it works” he says, not really explaining himself.
And even less reassuring — “The field don’t move dead things around.”
How long has this child been here? How long have WE been here? The look on Becky’s face asks the most important question of all.
That killer 20 minute opening segues to the arrival of Travis (Harris Gilbertson). He’s looking for Cal and Becky. He’s her baby daddy, and he’s on their trail.
And when he sees their car, covered in dust parked in that same abandoned church parking lot, he too will be drawn into the field.
I like the way “Splice” and TV’s “Hannibal” director Vincenzo Natali dangles logic and hope in front of through Travis. He mulls it over, and decides to try and climb the church steeple to look over the field, first.
He goes in with his backpack. He marks a trail, tying off the grass.
As someone who muttered all the way through “The Blair Witch Project,” Hike to WATER, FOLLOW the WATER out like good little Scouts,” I relish those “just what I would do” touches.
Of course it’s to no avail. But heck, wouldn’t be much of a horror movie if mere nature lore and hiking common sense could save you.
The film loses much of its lean, mean narrative drive when we get into group dynamics — who can you trust, who has been drinking the tall grass KoolAid — and the whole supernatural mumbo-jumbo “explaining” what they’re dealing with, and how they can escape it, takes over “In the Tall Grass.”
Wilson is the stand-out in the cast, but the kid is terrific and De Oleira makes an OK case for this being a break-out movie for her.
It’s not great, just a tad more interesting than the muddled “It” sequel and more engrossing (and brief) than TV’s “Mr. Mercedes.”
Let’s hope King passed along to his son not just a career, but the best advice he himself ever followed. KISS — keep it simple, Stephen.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, violence, profanity
Cast: Laysla De Oliveira, Avery Whitted, Patrick Wilson, Will Buie Jr.Will, Harrison Gilbertson, Rachel Wilson.
Credits: Written and directed by Vincenzo Natali, based on the Stephen King/Joe Hill novella. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:41