Director: Mike Flanagan
Stars: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Henry Thomas
Mike Flanagan has become one of the bright hopes in mainstream American horror, embracing both big and small screens. For cinema goers his Oculus showed a healthy amount of originality, while Oujia: Origin of Evil was that rarest or rare birds; a superior horror prequel, immediately giving him the persona of fixer. Meanwhile, for Netflix, Hush proved a word-of-mouth favourite for those who like their home invasion movies creepy but not too creepy. His work is slick, glossy, but rooted in character. That’s the key. Flanagan’s horror movies work because he asks for your investment.
The barnstorming success of IT means that everyone’s now rushing to repackage Stephen King for the screen. Fortunately for Flanagan, he struck a deal with Netflix some time ago and so here, ahead of the rest, is Gerald’s Game, an adaptation of a supposedly difficult text to transpose. Carla Gugino plays Jessie Burlingame, travelling to a reclusive lake house with her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) in a last-ditch effort to resurrect the romantic and sexual side of their relationship. She’s bought a special slip. He’s got Viagra and handcuffs to add a little spice.
And while the bedroom play takes a nasty turn as the couple forget to set a safe-word and some unsavoury fantasies are exposed, the plot takes an altogether different swerve when Gerald suffers a heart attack and keels over off of the bed, striking his head. Jessie is left handcuffed by both arms with no expectation of help or obvious means of escape. What’s more, a starved dog that she charitably fed beforehand has wandered into the house and her late husband’s corpse is the freshest of fresh cuts.
At this point King’s novel internalises, burrows into the psyche of the stranded Jessie, tunneling through those racing thoughts one might have when left in a predicament outside of their ability to solve. Hence the unimaginative claims that Gerald’s Game would prove difficult to realise on screen. Flanagan’s film makes the most obvious leap and re-animates Gerald as a ghostly double, allowing Jessie to ricochet her thoughts (and allowing Greenwood a meatier role), while Gugino herself puts in extra work as Jessie literally starts talking to herself. These are theatrical methods to extrapolate material that is inherent introspective. With a single setting and therefore low production costs, it’s actually a small wonder nobody’s done it already.
Gugino and Greenwood relish their respective roles and Flanagan plays to his strengths. During wordier stretches he defers to his actors, one senses that he enjoys filming them as they wrap their tonsils around Jeff Howard’s screenplay. Come nightfall, his prior talents of toying with darkness are brought to the fore as Jessie receives a peculiar visitor (Carel Struycken).
Around halfway through, however, Gerald’s Game breaks the tension by indulging in flashback. Granted, these scenes allow us greater context for Jessie’s psychological make-up (and they’re some of the film’s most unpleasant, albeit in a very different way), but by breaking from the bedroom and Gugino, Flanagan releases the pressure. It’s an understandable move, but it sorely dissipates the incrementally increasing tension of Jessie’s predicament. It effectively hits a reset switch on the achievements of the first half. But Gerald’s Game isn’t a clean-cut horror tale. Discoveries in the past reshape the experience as a character drama. It’s about denial, repression, and denied resolutions, how we busy ourselves from facing our traumas… until there is nothing to distract us and we come apart at the seams. The toll of the unchecked.
Things certainly take a turn back toward the horrific come the final stretch as the present reasserts itself and the movie becomes a bloody and graphic fight for Jessie’s survival. Flanagan’s genre experience pays dividends and gives viewers good cause to gnaw on their wrists in discomfort. The finale remains faithful to the source and accordingly is guaranteed to divide opinion; a torrent of exposition and something that feels altogether removed from the remainder of the narrative. While all involved can feel proud of their accomplishments here, and Flanagan’s resume grows that little bit stronger as a result, the mournful nastiness of this one makes it hard to envisage regular revisits, but King fans should be thoroughly satisfied that due diligence has been done here.