One of the year’s biggest curiosity items is Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of Stephen King’s 1992 novel, “Gerald’s Game.”
For horror fans, this Netflix project promised big things. Flanagan, director of the acclaimed “Oculus,” “Hush” and the exceptional “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” is on his way to becoming the next Master of Horror.
If that sounds like hyperbole, just look at “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” among the finest mainstream horror films in ages.
Pairing Flanagan with King’s novel, which many believed to be unfilmable, felt like a perfect pairing. This adaptation, which stars Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood, is faithful, demonstrates Flanagan’s superb storytelling abilities and has some memorably disturbing scenes.
It also falls short at being as impactful and frightening as the source material and, while not a bad film, isn’t the genre slam dunk one expects.
The establishing scenes make minor but smart expansions from the novel. We meet Jessie (Gugino), the kind but haunted wife of Gerald (Greenwood). They’re driving to a weekend getaway at a secluded house in the woods. Flanagan sets things up perfectly, as we get a sense of the isolated geography and, best of all, a clever explanation for the attentive dog who will play a big part in the film’s second act.
Gerald’s intention for this trip is out in the open – he wishes to jump-start his sex life. He wants Jessie to participate in a “game” involving her handcuffed to their bed. While Jessie reluctantly goes along with this at first, she eventually lashes out as Gerald enacts a sadistic captor role.
While Jessie stands up for herself and begs Gerald to un-cuff her, Gerald has a sudden heart attack and dies. Suddenly, Jessie is alone, with no one around for miles, in a cabin with the front door left open.
King’s tale, with its S+M set-up and grabber of a horror premise (you’re alone in your room, handcuffed to your bed, in the dark, surrounded by monsters in your mind), seemed especially raw and kinky compared to most of his other works at that point.
Coming out right around the time Madonna’s “Erotica” and Paul Verhoeven’s “Basic Instinct” brought notably overt sexuality into ’90s pop culture, “Gerald’s Game” serves as a stronger, smarter (though utterly pulpy) alternative to the “Fifty Shades of Grey” craze decades later. The central concept, with a damsel in distress chained to a bedpost for most of the narrative, made rumors of potential film adaptations seem unlikely.
Flanagan has made a respectable film and that’s actually a problem. It takes less than 10 minutes for the inciting incident to kick things into gear and his abilities as a filmmaker (he also edited and co-wrote the screenplay) are obvious throughout. Rather than creating a slow build of suspense, Flanagan makes a crucial misstep.
Without giving too much away, I’ll note the film’s biggest problem: as Jessie thinks through her scenario and plots an escape, she has conversations with imaginary figures who represent the strong and weak aspects of her psyche.
While this allows Gugino to interact with co-stars, it softens the mounting tension considerably. There is simply too much talking, to the point that this would work better as a stage play. Certain monologues go on so long, the film threatens to become the first Stephen King film worthy of comparison to “My Dinner With Andre.”Flanagan has made a respectable film and that's actually a problem.Click To Tweet
To give Flanagan and co-screenwriter Jeff Howard the credit they deserve, an attempt has been made to explore Jessie’s state of mind, which, in addition to the desperation she faces, is haunted by her traumatic childhood. The flashbacks are effective and feature a solid turn by Henry Thomas.
There are subtle nods, both verbal and visual, to King’s “Cujo,” “Bag of Bones” and especially “Dolores Claiborne” (another tale of an oppressed housewife with a key scene set during an eclipse). Flanagan and Howard should have studied Rob Reiner’s “Misery,” the best King adaptation, for inspiration. “Misery” works as a companion piece to this film, as it also features the protagonist trapped in bed (albeit for an extremely different reason) and is about the need for escape from a physical and mental prison.
Reiner’s film, exceptionally well adapted by William Goldman, didn’t need to give Paul Sheldon, the main character played by James Caan, an inner monologue or even a John McLane tendency to talk to himself.
Instead, Goldman stuck to the visual storytelling (brilliantly conveyed by cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld) and allowed Sheldon’s observations, discoveries and insights to be shared in a cinematic manner. “Gerald’s Game,” on the other hand, talks us through so much of what Jessie endures, it distracts from the horror.
One of the most terrifying aspects of King’s novel was a figure that Jessie sees (or think she sees) staring at her, shadowed from across the room. That quality alone has made the novel among King’s most shudder-worthy in his canon.
In the film, the figures in the dark, real and unreal, are given a back seat to Jessie’s vocal therapy session. Tellingly, the sequences that have no dialog or music (like the torturous hand cuff escape attempt and the sound effects coming from the bedroom floor) are much stronger than all the excess chatting.
Gugino is an under-appreciated actress with a career full of highs and lows to match Diane Lane (another terrific actress too often stuck in girlfriend/house wife/love interest roles). Although the screenplay over-explains Jessie to a point of undermining her characterization, Gugino is still very good here. Likewise the always-strong Greenwood and a cleverly cast Carel Stryucken of “Twin Peaks.”
Flanagan deserves credit for tackling such difficult material and making a film that intends to offer an empowering message for women who are shackled, literally and figuratively, by hurtful figures in their past and present. There are flashes of greatness here but, rather than shape the King equivalent of “Gone Girl,” the end result is just a bit spookier than the average Lifetime TV movie.
Flanagan will presumably move past this minor disappointment, which fans of his and King’s should see and judge for themselves. Yet, considering how powerful King’s novel and Flanagan’s most recent film was, I expected “Gerald’s Game” to have a much sharper bite.