Here’s a film which is clearly one in which the creative team just lost control. It starts well enough and seems competently staged; decent cast, intriguing premise… everything seems to be in place for an effective and rewarding horror film, but at the midway point it just falls apart. Its weird, it takes this weird turn and you can see it unravelling before your very eyes, like the whole film just gradually collapses in front of you. By the time it ends, if you manage to stay with it that far, its an aimless mess of a film that makes absolutely no sense. Which had me scratching my head: at what point did this ‘people get lost in a maze’ film get so complicated and become such a messy genre mash-up that it ends with a dumb time travel paradox?*
The director, Vincenzo Natali also wrote the screenplay so likely deserves most of the blame. The film is based on a slim short story co-written by Stephen King and his son Joe Hill (slim in that it lasts about 60+ pages and possibly would have made a great thirty-minute short film), Evidently in his attempt to enlarge the story into a full movie Natali got into all sorts of trouble. I haven’t read the original short so have no idea what he took from it and how much he thought up himself, but I find it difficult to believe King and Hill let themselves get twisted up in a tale of an ancient and very evil rock, wormholes, cults, time travel, religious symbolism, mystical creatures, unwanted pregnancies, obsessive brothers, reluctant boyfriends etc. Well, maybe they did, you never know these days, but certainly Natali throws everything including the kitchen sink into it… except, of course, for a lawnmower (Damn. I thought I’d managed to forget that bloody awful film The Lawnmower Man).
One of my issues with horror films (or films in general, I suppose) when they get all weird, spooky, obtuse and Lynchian, for want of a better word, is that they should still have some kind of internal logic. Being obtuse shouldn’t necessarily mean being confusing. In the Tall Grass has several leaps of logic being excused by cutting to spooky imagery and effects as if that strange imagery is explanation enough- which it isn’t, its just the director’s lazy sleight of hand, an awkward excuse for what happens next.
So its all something of a shame. I wanted to enjoy it, and did for awhile. Sometimes short stories or novellas can be great launchpads for movies, you know, great ideas to spin a great film out of. So many films based on Philip K Dick material became their ‘own thing’ after spinning off the base ideas of a short story- so much so that few of them actually properly resemble the story they are based on (Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Total Recall and We Can Remember it For You Wholesale). At the same time though, once they go off and do their own thing they can also fall apart (Minority report and the original The Minority Report story). I suspect this is a case in which the original story was pretty slim and by expanding it into a full movie, it all just fell apart. Perhaps only worth watching to see Patrick Wilson absolutely chewing up the scenery as if he’s convinced he’s in a horror film as good as The Shining and that he’s up to the task of emulating Jack Nicholson (answer: it isn’t and he isn’t).
*Spoilers: our pregnant heroine and brother are saved from the grassy horror, resetting back (and we’re just expected to go with it, its not explained how) to just prior to when they entered the field, and instead turn back and, er, go back home. But it was because they disappeared that our heroine’s estranged boyfriend came out there looking for them and ultimately sacrificed himself to save them. If they don’t disappear, he won’t look for them, so he’ll be back home too. But if he stays home, he won’t have come out searching for them to save them, so they will perish in the field…. Its one of those causality loops that bugs me all the time, including Avengers: Endgame earlier this year. I know, I should just go with it. Its only a movie, as dear old John Brosnan used to say.