Stephen King has always had a knack for tapping into the most basic of universal fears. From clowns to disease to, err, demonically possessed industrial laundry presses, King has built his reputation on finding the para in the normal. With IN THE TALL GRASS, the 2012 novella he wrote with his son Joe Hill, he found a way to eke fear out of…grass. Granted,it’s about the concept of literally getting lost in the weeds — of wandering into a vast expanse of green and never being able to get out. Who hasn’t looked at field of tall grass or corn and shuddered at the idea of not being able to wind your way out of there?
However, would you want to watch 90 minutes of people rushing around, frantically calling out each other’s names in increasing panic? Then I got the movie for you. IN THE TALL GRASS is a sluggishly repetitive adaptation of the King/Hill novella. It’s director is Vincenzo Natali, who once upon a time wrung claustrophobic high-concept horror out of being trapped in, well, a cube, in CUBE the 1998 indie debut that made his name. He can’t pull a similar trick here. Natali may have thought he was capturing the hysteria-inducing terror of getting irrevocably turned around in a maze of emerald monotony, but all he does is create the sheer terror of…a stroll in the park.
IN THE TALL GRASS might have worked as a short. It tells the tale of various travelers cutting their way through the Midwest who lured by plaintive, crying voices into a seemingly never ending field of grass — the only buildings that pockmark the land are a church right off the road, and a decrepit old bowling deep within the green — only to find that can’t make their way back out. Each person that went in, went to help someone calling out for them, and it soon becomes apparent that something isn’t right, that the field intends to keep them there, no matter the cost.
But how do you wring a tense and visceral feature length film out of such a premise? Natali’s answer is…you don’t. You don’t find anything that is tense or visceral or all that thrilling. Instead you create a gaseous and saggy disaster that cycles through the same scenes over and over: someone pulls up to the side of the road. They hear someone call out in distress. They enter the field and immediately get confused. Wash, rinse, repeat, yawn.
The field messes with time, and that results in a time loop that just serves to further the draggy, exhausting monotony of the whole enterprise. Patrick Wilson shows up to sink his teeth into the role of Russ, a chummy used car salesman family guy who becomes the most affected by the field’s energies, and his feral Jack Torrance-a-like performance is the only thing that adds an iota of energy to the banality. Worse still is the film’s bad CGI and the strange and off-putting pro-life message-mongering. You read that right: IN THE TALL GRASS is a horror movie about a killer grass field that’s really a treatise on why you should keep your unborn baby alive and keep your family together. IN THE TALL GRASS is already bad enough to try your patience; it doesn’t need to leave you with a bad taste in your mouth as well.
IN THE TALL GRASS is a Netflix original (and looks it) and it’s not the only new film from the streaming giant to cripple a once talented filmmaker at Fantastic Fest. Jim Mickle once made taut, grim thrillers like COLD IN JULY, STAKE LAND and WE ARE WHAT WE ARE, but with IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON he’s made a gaseous, bloated and wobbly cop thriller that plays like the worst SEVEN ripoffs the ‘90s could provide.
“What if a bored David Fincher decided to make his own TERMINATOR?” seems to be the operating principle of this logy sci fi noir in which time travel and police procedural collide to lackluster effect. In 1988, three people die, all seemingly at the same time, their brains literally pooling out of their heads in grisly fashion. Each has three puncture wounds on their necks, and the sole witness describes the perpetrator as a black woman in a blue hoodie. Thomas Lockhart (Boyd Holbrook) is an ambitious beat cop — he wants to become a detective — who catches the trail of the killer (Cleopatra Coleman) and pursues her into the subway, accidentally killing her.
Nine years later, Lockhart has been promoted to detective, and there are protests erupting around Philadelphia as the anniversary of the mystery killer’s death approaches, and locals demand an answer on her identity, blaming racist malfeasance on her death. It’s a misguided attempt to ground the film in a topical reality, but it’s so sketchy and barely thought out it comes across more as an exploitative attempt to give a lackluster thriller some depth.
In 1997, deaths begin again, seemingly echoing those of 1988, and while his superiors think it’s just an obsessive copycat attempting to restart the killer’s original rampage, Lockhart begins to think that the woman he once killed is back. Spoiler alert: he’s right.
IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON is a lifeless, depressing turd. It slogs along without any interesting action, anything interesting to say thematically or any interesting character beats for its actors to latch onto. There’s a late in the game stab at contemporary relevance, but it’s obvious, hamfisted and tacked on. As you watch IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON, you see that it has no momentum, no drive — it just plods along. What happened to Mickle, the crafty genre stylist who once made tight, captivating dramas of moral grayness? The answer is, like Natali, he got subsumed by the Netflix machine.
Tags: Boyd Holbrook, Cleopatra Coleman, Fantastic Fest, Fantastic Fest 2019, In The Shadow of the Moon, In The Tall Grass, Jim Mickle, Joe Hill, Michael C. Hall, Netflix, Patrick Wilson, Stephen King, Vincenzo Natali