Every decade or so, Stephen King film and TV adaptations are all the rage, and right now, we're in the thick of a serious King-era. This year alone, the Pet Sematary remake and It Chapter Two graced the big screen, and Doctor Sleep is scheduled to spook horror fans in November. Given all that, it almost seems unfathomable that Cube director Vincenzo Natali's labor of love, a take on King's gripping novella In the Tall Grass, initially failed to garner any attention. The project required almost five years to go from page to finished product.
"It's been the logistics of someone picking it up," Natali tells SYFY WIRE on the Toronto set of In the Tall Grass last August, explaining that he was first attracted to the story because of it is "truly subversive and disturbing."
"I think that is what elevates it to a level of meaningful horror in the way horror films can be meaningful by pushing boundaries and being transgressive," he says. "That also made it not necessarily palatable to the people who would normally be buying this kind of thing, like Blumhouse. It's unconventional."
Natali says it's rare that independent filmmakers get the green light to make a horror movie with a budget of over $5 million.
"Don't ask me why. That's truly an arbitrary figure," he says, explaining that he couldn't get the price tag below that $5 million figure, "partly because of Stephen King's fee and partly because of the nature of the film, which is deceptively complex."
It wasn't until It proved to be such a blockbuster and Netflix had some successes with smaller King adaptations, like 1922, that In the Tall Grass got a chance to grow. "It was frustrating because I really thought this movie would be easy to get made, but it turned out to be one of the hardest things I ever worked on to raise financing on," he says.
Audiences better buckle up, because In the Tall Grass — now streaming on Netflix — is one crazy, mind-bending road trip from Hell. Based on the two-part short story by King and his son Joe Hill, which was originally published in Esquire, In the Tall Grass follows Cal (Avery Whitted) and his pregnant sister Becky (Laysla De Oliveira). On their cross-country drive to San Diego, Becky becomes nauseous and the siblings stop on a desolate road next to a vast stretch of grass.
The two almost immediately hear a young boy, Tobin (Will Buie Jr.), begging for help from within the field. However, as the pair venture into the greenery to find him, Cal and Becky become separated. They soon discover a psychopathic predator, Ross (Patrick Wilson), on the loose, find that the grass exhibits supernatural properties… and horrifyingly realize that there may be no escaping this nightmarish scenario. Natali, who also penned the script, notes that one of the biggest challenges was converting the short novella into a three-structure act that spanned 120 minutes.
"The thing that made me feel I could do that was by taking what is initially a two-hander, it's this brother and sister lost in the grass, and adding a third component to it and making a triangle," Natali says. "That was done by introducing this character, Travis (Harrison Gilbertson), who is mentioned in the short story but not seen. Travis is the father of Becky's unborn child. Once that notion got into my head, I had a sense I could make this work. But I made it my mission not to add anything into my adaptation that wasn't at least seeded in the original story. I didn't invent any characters really. I didn't invent any locations."
In the Tall Grass takes place, naturally, in tall grass. Principal filming took place around Ontario, Canada, and the filmmakers also transformed a soundstage into a field.
"It was interesting because the grass they wanted to use didn't grow in time," De Oliveira explains. "The one we ended up using, Miscanthus, is serrated, so it does cut. The first couple of days were tough, but then your body gets used to it and you don't get cut as much. In the scenes where we are running, the grass is definitely more challenging.
"In the studio, it's a little easier because they built paths for us," she adds. "But then we have the physically demanding aspect of being in the cold mud and rolling around. What I will say is it helps with the emotionally heightened state that we are in in the movie. No acting required in that part. We are truly miserable, but when we get to see how it looks, that trumps everything."
In order to save her unborn child, Becky goes into survival mode. "We joke that her baby is her superpower almost," De Oliveira offers. That means Becky must somehow live through her encounter with the unhinged Ross.
"Patrick does a great job of mastering this character," De Oliveira praises. "He's really creepy, but I kind of love how he doesn't look like your average creepy guy. He could be your next-door neighbor. That makes it even scarier because you don't know who to trust in the grass."
In the Tall Grass is rooted in some deeper themes, ones that are perhaps even more scary and prickly than a deadly maze of leafy blades. It dives into the mistakes you make in your life, and what you ultimately do about them. Is redemption possible and, if so, how can these characters achieve it?
In the Tall Grass is now streaming on Netflix.