It’s been a big summer for Mr Stephen King, hasn’t it? With It racking up rave reviews left and right, Mr Mercedes about to wrap up its first season, and now Gerald’s Game out on Netflix, it seems the King of Horror can do no wrong these days.
I’ve yet to see It (it was just released this week in these parts) and I’m holding off to binge-watch Mr Mercedes, but I did just see Gerald’s Game, and it didn’t disappoint.
It’s been a while since I read the novel, but I can definitely remember the effect it had on me. I was by myself in my island home, and let’s just say that during the time it took me to finish the book, I had a bit of trouble sleeping without the nagging feeling that someone had crept into the house and was about to do unspeakable things to me.
Needless to say, I was curious to see whether the creepy factor translated on screen, and was pleasantly surprised to find out that it did. Which, in an of itself, is an impressive feat, when you sit down to watch a movie that basically features a single protagonist and takes place in a single room.
The plot is pretty straight-forward, and it’s the kind of King stories I prefer, i.e. ones that feature minimal supernatural elements and let the ‘real’ horror speak for itself. And although I had my qualms about whether the adaptation would be successful – so many of King’s books have been mishandled along the way, after all – Gerald’s Game did not disappoint.
[minor spoilers ahead]
The movie begins innocently enough: a married couple take a trip to their lake house for an intimate weekend of adventurous sex in order to rekindle their love life. Gerald, the husband, pops a little blue pill, as Jessie, the wife, puts on new lingerie and reluctantly allows him to handcuff her to the bed post and live out his rape fantasy. The role-playing turns really uncomfortable for her pretty fast, but Gerald insists that she humor his (newly discovered) fetish. The sexy vibes soon dissipate and their intended sexcapade turns into a full-blown fight over their relationship.
Just like their romp in the sack, the fight doesn’t last long: refusing to uncuff Jessie, Gerald straddles her, intent on finishing what he started; alas, the excitement, coupled with the effects of the Viagra, proves to be too much for him: he clutches his chest and promptly drops dead on top of her.
For the next hour or so, we see Jessie try to suppress her panic and survive the couple of nights she spends handcuffed to the bed, and if that sounds boring, let me tell you, it’s anything but.
I was wondering how the writer and director would flesh out Jessie’s inner monologue and imagined conversations as they are expertly laid out in the book, and the end result was definitely effective: as Gerald’s body lies still by the foot of the bed, where she managed to push him, bleeding out from the resulting head wound, an imaginary Gerald appears, very much alive and poised to lay out her few options and squash her hopes of getting out of her predicament alive. To counteract this fatalistic voice in her head, another version of Jessie appears, free to roam around the room, unlike the real Jessie, and be the voice of reason and practical thinking.
The two conflicting voices, however, are not the only things Jessie has to deal with as the time passes and it becomes clear that no one is there to hear her cries for help and set her free. There are very real dangers she must face: hunger, dehydration, a stray dog who found its way into the house after Jessie whetted his appetite with a nice juicy steak of Kobe beef ($200 a portion, as Gerald makes a point to remind her!), and is now snacking happily on her dead husband. How long before he decides fresh meat is preferable?
To top that off, there’s a creepy figure lurking in the shadows as night falls, tall and deformed and utterly terrifying, clutching a box full of bones and jewelry, open and waiting to receive Jessie’s wedding ring (or perhaps a phalange or two) and add them to his collection.
Worst of all, this predicament is a strong reminder of Jessie’s best kept secret, a traumatic event from a long-ago vacation to the very same house with her family during a solar eclipse.
This is a movie that could have easily turned into a disaster (or even unintentional comedy), but Mike Flanagan sidesteps the dangers artfully. So much hinges on the dialogue, which is spot-on, and the cinematography, which makes brilliant use of color, light and shadow; Jessie’s plight is intense, Carla Gugino’s performance is excellent and the resolution offers closure and satisfaction. The various gory elements are handled carefully, walking the line between horror and splatter territory, and the use of flashbacks enhances, rather than distract from the overall experience.
Unfortunately I can’t really speak to how accurately the filmmakers adapted to the book to screen, as it’s been over a decade since I actually read the novel, and the details are a little fuzzy. However, I’m definitely willing to forgive whatever deviations might have occured, simply because the end result was so well made.
If you’re looking for an intense thriller that might give you nightmares, then you can do a lot worse than Gerald’s Game.