You see a car going down a highway through fields of high grass. On the radio, Sam Cooke is singing “It’s All Right”. That’s the last pleasant sound you hear till the end of In the Tall Grass. The rest of the sounds you hear for the next ninety minutes are at best unnerving and at worst soul-crushingly depressing. This is a scary film. Director Vincenzo Natali not only uses sound, but amazing cinematography to bring a novella by Stephen King and Joe Hill to the screen. Everyone will be scared. Stephen King fans will be morbidly delighted.
In the Tall Grass screened as part of Austin’s Fantastic Fest, the largest genre film festival in the US. The fest features horror, fantasy, sci-fi, action and just plain unusual films from around the world. In prior years it hosted the premieres of now classic films such as John Wick, Frankenweenie, Machete Kills, Red Dawn, There Will Be Blood, Apocalypto, and Zombieland. This year the festival runs from September 19-26.
Besides directing, Natali also moved the novella to screenplay format. He then did an amazing job of using cinematic tools to create, fear, repulsion and dread on the screen.
Field of Nightmares
The story is deceptively simple. A brother and sister traveling cross-country pull over to the side of the road. The sister, played by Laysla De Oliveira (Guest of Honour), feels nausea because of her pregnancy. They stop the car to allow this to take its course. While stopped, they hear a voice coming from the tall grass. A boy calls for help. The brother, played by Avery Whitted, goes into the field of eight-foot-tall grass to find the boy.
He gets lost. His sister goes in to look for him. Getting out is not so easy. While trapped in the field of nightmares, they meet another trapped family and encounter forces, perhaps supernatural or maybe extraterrestrial. Whichever, the forces warp space and time and push the victim’s psyches in ways they’d rather not go.
The Fly’s the Limit
Natali uses an amazing range of photographic choices to tell the story and create atmosphere. There are aerial shots, used to look down on the field of grass and make it a character as well. At the other extreme, we see close ups of the eyes of crows, flies getting eaten, and landscapes reflected through a drop of water on a blade of grass.
His goto shot for actors is the extreme close-up. This creates an intimate connection with the characters and their fears.
There are a couple of transitions which are visually overwhelming when viewed in a theater. You think, “What am I seeing? What happened?” Unfortunately, these will by less dramatic when viewed on Netflix. You should at least watch in a dark room.
The Sounds of Un-Silence
If you do watch this on Netflix, after you turn the lights out, turn the sound way up. Natali also uses sound dramatically and to great atmospheric effect. The sound is hyper-realistic. When a fly moves through a scene you are aware of the buzzing. Footsteps in the mud make a sound. When the aforementioned fly gets eaten, you hear that too.
There are sounds you’d expect, sounds you will wish you didn’t hear, and there are sounds that defy description.
Moving Through the Grass
Besides De Oliveira and Whitted, there are only five other actors in the film, if you don’t count the grass. Patrick Wilson, Will Buie Jr, Harrison Gilbertson, Tiffany Helm and Rachel Wilson all add to the film’s impact of the story. There are no unimportant parts in this field of grass.
Usually, I like all the loose threads to be tidied up at the end of a movie. That doesn’t happen here, but the experience was so intense and memorable, I didn’t mind.
You can view the trailer for In the Tall Grass below. It premieres on Netflix on October 4.