31 by 31 Challenge #18: IN THE TALL GRASS (2019)

@craiggors

It’s always tricky taking a short story or a novella and adapting the events into a longer narrative. Stephen King and Joe Hill’s In the Tall Grass is known for it’s shocking violence and gut-punch ending, a simple story told in a tight, brisk novella. In stretching that story out to feature-film length for Netflix, director Vincenzo Natali (Cube) expands on the surreal hints of the original pages, plunging the viewer into a weird fiction universe of ancient, ritualized evil aided by sinister, semi-sentient grass.

Pregnant Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) is traveling across the country with her brother Cal (Avery Whitted) to meet her unborn child’s potential adoptive parents in San Diego. Driving the empty back roads of the nation, the two are attempting to keep things as positive as possible given the heavy situation. On a particularly deserted country road, the siblings hear a cry for help coming from the tall, thick fields of grass stretching for miles on either side of the highway. Entering into the grass to help find the lost boy (Will Buie Jr.), Becky and Cal soon find themselves lost in a dizzying maze of grass that seems to defy logic. As dehydration and heat exhaustion set in and the siblings are separated, they soon come to realize that something else moves through the grass, something that has no intention of letting them go…

Though De Oliveira and Whitted are more than fine in their roles, along with Buie Jr. as the lost, innocent Tobin and Harrison Gilbertson as baby daddy Travis, the film really belongs to Patrick Wilson who plays Tobin’s father Ross. The shifty, shady nature of the character allows for Wilson to swing from his trademark charisma to being rivetingly unhinged at the drop of a pin. The rest of the characters are somewhat shallow, even given the expansion of the relationship between Becky and Travis, and the focus on the emotional and psychological weight of being in the grass as supposed to the in-your-face gore of the father/son novella. Not that the gore isn’t present, it’s just overshadowed by an invented mythology that thrusts the story into a bizarre Lynchian-esque world that, while visually stimulating, can be difficult to track in terms of story beats and character development.

Natali knows how to move the camera, play with light, and craft striking imagery. It just so happens that, in this particular instance, these artistic choices to favor a surrealist aesthetic over surface-level characterization prevent the viewer from ever really attaching themselves to the characters or feeling their peril. Given the narrative loops, it’s hard not to wonder if any of the danger that lurks behind the grass is even worth fretting about, thus lowering if not entirely negating the stakes, and you can’t have a horror movie without stakes (insert vampire joke here). Yet this has been sacrificed for a more idiosyncratic storytelling approach.

In The Tall Grass – Patrick Wilson, Harrison Gilbertson, Laysla De Oliveira, Avery Whitted – Photo Credit: Netflix

I think Natali was hoping to create a sense of disorientation for the viewer in an effort to mirror how the characters felt once they realized they were trapped within the tall grass. It’s a stylistic move worthy of attempting, and he doesn’t fail entirely, but he leaves his characters to fend for themselves too much and as a result they’re under-baked, leaving us with a film that’s heavy on atmosphere and stimulating to watch, but with little real heart. Wilson is able to pull layers from Ross and deliver an engaging performance, but you can feel that that’s his own doing. Everyone else’s characterization has been sacrificed in the name of tone and mood. Lost, as it were, in the weeds.

In the Tall Grass

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #9: THE MANGLER (1995)

@craiggors

Adapting a Stephen King story is a tricky business. Despite the number of King’s tales that have been shifted from page to screen, Hollywood hasn’t quite pinned down a formula for how to make a successful King film. By and large, the general rule seems to be that if you want to tilt the scales in your favor, it’s best to stack the deck with horror royalty. Think Romero taking on Creepshow (1982) and The Dark Half (1993), or Carpenter with Christine (1983). Following that logic, a film directed by Tobe Hooper and starring Robert Englund and Ted Levine should be a complete blockbuster. But logic has failed us here.

The prize machine of the Blue Ribbon Laundry service is a monstrous device known as the mangler. It’s a dangerous press, but safety regulations seem to be the least concern of factory owner Bill Gartley (Englund). When an accident involving Gartley’s niece Sherry (Vanessa Pike) splashes blood onto the mangler, the sinister clunker appears to come to life, and it’s out for blood. Officer John Hunton (Levine) gets involved in the case when another worker dies, and he turns to his demonologist brother-in-law Mark (Daniel Matmor) when events at Blue Ribbon begin to defy earthly explanation.

There’s a decent amount to work with when it comes to The Mangler. As in the original short story, collected in Night Shift, there’s a commentary on American capitalism and gluttonous consumerism, specifically in how the working class is sacrificed in the name of dollar signs, and how the bodies of young women are exploited and abused with ease and encouragement in a patriarchal society. And then of course, a demonic laundry press comes to life and literally chases our heroes through an M.C. Escher hellscape because of some blood and a few antacids. It’s two completely different films. One half, the horror comedy headed by Englund in his droopy prosthetics and half-man/half-machine ensemble, is fun and goofy. The other half is a strange neo-noir tale with Levine moaning and groaning and carrying the weight of the cruel, unjust working world on his ever-so-broad shoulders.

What The Mangler gets wrong is trying to give equal weight to these two different stories being told. The safer bet would have been to embrace the inherent ridiculousness of the plot and go all in on the black comedy angle, much in the way that Carpenter does with Christine. In attempting to balance the humor with melodrama, Hooper creates a film that just doesn’t gel. It looks great–the sets are full of grime and slick muck and lazy steam and you can feel the woe and corruption practically pulsating in the walls–but visuals aren’t enough to save a disjointed narrative.

Short stories don’t always work when told in longer format, but there’s enough in The Mangler that could have made for an interesting feature. Small town elites sacrificing their virginal daughters could have been played up, as well as the more serious themes of corruption, greed, and misogyny. Perhaps Hooper didn’t want to strike out too far from King’s original work. The direction is often hesitant, as though he knew he had to choose between black comedy and melodrama but couldn’t commit. Unfortunately for him, and the viewer, neither half is strong enough to stand on its own and instead we’re left with something a bit more, well…mangled.

The Mangler

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

Carrie: A Horror Novel Unburdened by Ego

By Miss @MelMoy

Since I kind of fell right off my wagon last year when it came to keeping up with the promised blog about my fall reading list, I’m going to actually make an effort this year to talk about the books I read during the spooky season. I kicked things off on September 9th with my first ever reading of Carrie. I picked this one up on a trip to Maine over Labor Day weekend because…obviously.

For anyone unfamiliar, Carrie is a novel about a 17-year-old girl who finds she has latent telekinetic powers after a traumatic incident in the girls’ locker room involving her period. She takes revenge on the peers who bullied her and the mother who raised her in a strict, Christian fundamentalist home. It was Stephen King’s first novel, published when King was about 25 years old and working as a teacher in Hampden high school. Technically, it was his fourth novel but the first one he got published.

Going in, I was highly aware this was one of the earliest works by an author who would go on to put out over 60 novels, 10 short story collections, and 5 nonfiction books. It’s sort of like a time capsule of the most prolific American writer in the later 20th century.  And I was surprised when I came to the end of the story and found the whole thing to be, honestly, a nearly perfect novel. 

The characterization is incredibly well done, the cast doesn’t feel like anyone was short-changed. Characters are full and realized, something King still does expertly, but here it’s done with minimal scenes, low amounts of exposition, and mainly in-scene choices that build the inner world of the cast of characters.  The dialogue lacks King’s self-indulgent style that began to crop up in The Stand and there is no excessive scene building as he trusts the reader to be present without 3 pages worth of introduction. Possibly the best part, this novel is completely devoid of King’s customary self-insert character of a white male writer and occasional school teacher with a substance abuse problem (Jack Torrance, Bill Denbrough, Ben Mears). This is a story probably farthest away from King’s personal experience: a teenage girl’s first period and mercilessly bullying from her fellow women in the school. 

I think what this proves, if anything, is that this novel is the product of honesty at a different time in King’s life. While I think there is real honesty in his later stories that deal with much more internally complex characters with a different set of problems to work through, this novel feels unweighted by the trappings of success, by an author who is invisible in the story. There’s no contamination of ego or expectation. It’s a novel written by a man who was living out of a trailer, with a story to tell. 

As a horror novel? It’s more weird fiction and speculative than it is actual horror. That being said, this novel is a great example of the true differences between horror and terror, as outlined by Shirley Jackson (a known influence on King’s work). In that regard, the last third of the novel is nothing but horror at Carrie’s rampage and King’s use of secondary texts throughout to hint at what’s to come is a great employment of terror as well. 

Ultimately, there’s a lot to be learned about writing and about the author himself from a glimpse at his first work of full fiction that graced shelves. Keep an eye as I work through more spooky books this fall.