Sitges Review: Vincenzo Natali's Inescapable Thriller 'In the Tall Grass'
In the tall grass lurks monsters, demons, horrors aplenty – but scariest of all is a fear of confusion, unknown forces, an inability to figure out where to go or what to do or how to escape. I've been a big fan of director Vincenzo Natali ever since discovering Cube, and while he did not work on either of its two sequels, I've been hoping one day he might return again, as it really is his original idea. An alternative, however, is this film - In the Tall Grass. Adapted from the novella written by Stephen King and Joe Hill, this frightening film is a thrilling stuck-in-one-location horror. Somewhere in the middle of America, and endless field of tall grass lures unsuspecting victims inside. Once you're in, you can never get out. The grass tricks everyone into hearing sounds/voices that aren't there, making them go crazy as they desperately try to find a way out.
It's quite a challenge to pull off this kind of contained concept. It's not only about the setup and the visuals, it's about making the viewers feel like they have an interesting story to follow, and feel just as lost as the characters. It's also about drawing us into the world (specifically this ominous field of grass), giving us a variety of shots to keep it from becoming repetitive, and yet making sure it remains compelling as we try to figure out what's going on and where it's going to lead us to next. Natali is one of the best filmmakers at crafting this kind of film, as is evident with Cube (and most of his other films), and here he proves he's the perfect director for this story as well. His mix of mostly practical set design along with a few CGI shots really makes it feel all the more disturbingly real and entirely engaging. I really, really enjoyed watching this film.
In the first 10 minutes or so, I was getting really anxious thinking if the whole film is going to be shots of nothing but a character running through this stringy, relentless green grass and how much it will mess with my mind if that's all we see for 101 minutes. Thankfully not, even though that feeling was unsettling enough as a concept. Natali eventually eases into a good rhythm that calmly cuts between close-up shots, sky shots, and a mix of other slick shots that keep the film from feeling too annoying or stuck, but remind us we are still stuck inside of this endless green grass field. It has pretty much every last shot of/from/in/through grass that anyone can come up with - including a water drop macro that pulls all the way back into a scene, a dolly zoom into the grass (of course), and a 360-degree pan. There's an abundance of creativity here with the cinematography from DP Craig Wrobleski, and the variety is necessary to keep us from getting bored.
The sound design is also incredibly important and plays very powerfully into the film's experience. At first pulling you in, then disorienting you in every scene, along with some other eerie sounds that keep the film unsettling as it continues. As is usually the case but especially with this film, that sound design takes this up to next level, giving it another layer of eeriness. The score by Mark Korven is mostly mellow, but there's a few particular tracks that are notably creepy. There's perfectly unsettling chanting aspects of the score that are also eerie as fuck. Used in the right way, this music can be as scary as anything else we see in the film. I also really dig the sci-fi side of it, a light tinge that keeps it feeling more "Twilight Zone" than all out horror. Which is certainly a Vincenzo Natali quirk, but nonetheless a facet that gives this film an extra unique edge.
There's a worthwhile place on all our Blu-Ray/DVD shelves for smaller, contained films that are just simply exceptional thrillers. They don't need to be "about" anything, or have any messages or big themes, they only need to be well-executed, riveting films. The experience is about drawing you in and making you feel just as frightened as the character. It's all about the technical aspects working in harmony with the storytelling, and In the Tall Grass joins Cube as another leading example of this. Natali takes it as far as possible with the concept, with tall green grass being the trap, and how scary this kind of endless maze of nothing can be. It had me hooked in right up until the end. And, as much as I don't want to admit this, I'm already ready for sequels. Lure some more people in, push the concept even further, let other filmmakers give us their vision of this idea and this place. The mythology is already built in, they just need to tell more stories in the grass.
Alex's Sitges 2019 Rating: 9 out of 10
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