Mike Flanagan’s been quietly making a name for himself in the film industry, directing a string of horror movies that either found an appreciative audience on DVD, or found acclaim as Netflix exclusives. I was a fan of his haunted mirror movie Oculus (2013), enjoyed the spin he put on slasher Hush (2016) with a deaf heroine, and not every low-budget prequel like Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) overshadows its predecessor. Flanagan may not be a household name yet, but he’s someone to keep an eye on.
Flanagan’s latest is another Netflix Original Movie, adapting Stephen King’s 1992 novel Gerald’s Game. It’s strange nobody’s adapted this story until now, as the concept lends itself perfectly to a ’90s straight-to-video release or TV-movie-of-the-week. 25 years after it was published, it’s become ideal material for a SVOD platform looking to boost their portfolio of original features.
2017’s turning out to be quite the year for Stephen King. Gerald’s Game follows in the wake of a big-budget adaptation of The Dark Tower, The Mist TV series, and It becoming the highest-grossing horror movie ever made. The first two may have been commercial and critical failures, but I’m pleased to say Gerald’s Game won’t have the same problem.
Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald Burlingame (Bruce Greenwood) take a trip into the countryside, hoping their “dirty weekend” at a remote lake house will rejuvenate their marriage. Gerald is particularly keen to acting out a sex fantasy, which begins innocently enough after handcuffing his wife to the bed, before turning more uncomfortable after he starts playing the role of a rapist. In the midst of this failed attempt to spice up their sex lives, Gerald suffers a heart attack and promptly dies, collapsing onto his poor spouse and making it impossible for Jessie to now uncuff herself.
This is a beautifully simple, twisted, and enthralling idea that oozes Stephen King from every pore. It may also stir memories of Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours (2010), which dramatised a real event that also echoes a key aspect of this story. What’s interesting is how the plot of Gerald’s Game develops and in seeing how it manages to last the full 103 minutes. I’ve never read the book, so went in expected a tight and straightforward ‘what would you do?’ tale about a woman having to escape from her own bed. In retrospect, that was never going to be the case. Instead, Jessie almost immediately starts seeing the “ghost” of her dead husband (who becomes a spiteful presence trying to crush her spirit), and even a doppelgänger of herself as a more positive influence.
That alone might seem enough to keep the story chugging along, but I was again surprised that Gerald’s Game uses flashbacks to delve into Jessie’s childhood. We learn about a traumatic experience she has involving her father, which she’s kept buried for decades, and thus gain understanding of Jessie’s conflicted feelings about men and sex. And if that weren’t enough, there’s also a frightening entity known as “the Moonlight Man” (Carel Struycken) who haunts the dark corners of Jessie’s room each night, apparently waiting for her to slip away. And did I mention the starving dog?
Gerald’s Game is certainly one of the better adaptations of a King story, blessed with marvellous performances from Gugino and Greenwood as a dysfunctional couple. You’re instantly drawn into Jessie’s present-day situation, partly because of how plausible and thus frightening it seems, and the flashbacks to what happened with her father Tom (Henry Thomas) give everything more substance than expected. And while I found it silly that Jessie starts having visions of dead Gerald talking to her, minutes after he croaked, this was only a minor gripe in the big scheme of things.
What begins as a simple story of escape grows richer and more compelling with every minute, which makes a moment of excruciating body horror all the more intense when it happens. It’s perhaps true the movie continues 10–15 minutes past a better ending, and in the process makes the debatable mistake of explaining away one supernatural aspect, but this comes down to personal taste. On the other hand, having an extended denouement means there’s a fuller conclusion to Jessie’s lifelong issues with “nice men” who wish to control her.
Flanagan has a good eye for beautiful shots, can draw excellent performances from his actors, and has a particular skill when it comes to crafting unnerving visuals and sequences that make you squirm. Tolerances will always vary, but I had to leave the room and pace around during one particular scene. That hasn’t happened since Hard Candy (2005). Gerald’s Game isn’t a perfect movie, but what is? But it’s riveting for many periods, portraying a nightmarish scenario with a sense of realism tempered with outlandish moments that aren’t too jarring. Deceptively deep and emotionally layered, Flanagan again shows he has an unerring sense of suspense, and Gugino reminds us why more filmmakers need to make good use of her talents.
Cast & Crew
director: Mike Flanagan.
writers: Jeff Howard & Mike Flanagan (based on the novel by Stephen King).
starring: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Henry Thomas, Kate Siegel, Chiara Aurelia & Carel Struycken.