Reader advisory: some mild spoilers for ‘Gerald’s Game’ ahead.
2017 has been a very big year for Stephen King. Sure, when we consider that his books have sold in excess of 350 million copies, and more than 70 films and TV shows have been produced based on his works, it’s not as if the famed horror author has ever been exactly struggling – yet somehow, he’s never been hotter than right now.
While Sony’s ‘The Dark Tower’ made far less of a splash than hoped, Warner Bros’ ‘It’ is close to becoming the most commercially successful horror film of all time – yet could it be that, so soon in its wake, a considerably smaller-scale production made specifically for Netflix based on a far less well-known Stephen King novel might very well be the best King adaptation of the year? Perhaps so, as the newly released ‘Gerald’s Game’ is making serious waves.
Director Mike Flanagan’s film starring Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood is going down a storm with critics and audiences alike: rated 89% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes with an 82% audience approval rating, and a 7.3 rating at IMDb.
Ostensibly, ‘Gerald’s Game’ may seem very far removed from ‘It,’ but at heart both films share a common central theme, as the protagonists must struggle as much to defeat their own personal demons as to overcome the imminent threat. Crucially, ‘Gerald’s Game’ tackles head-on that which some felt the ‘It’ movie diluted too heavily from King’s text: the very real horror of child abuse.
We might not expect something so hard-hitting going in, given the somewhat salacious premise: Gugino’s Jessie goes with her husband Gerald (Greenwood) to their remote lake house for, bluntly, a dirty weekend. Her husband proceeds to handcuff her to the bed – but then drops dead of a massive heart attack. Trapped alone, Jessie struggles to stay alive and sane as she’s plagued by visions of her dead husband – and, eventually, traumas buried deep in her subconscious rise to the surface of her mind.
It’s a set-up which could so easily have been trashy in the wrong hands. Thankfully, director Mike Flanagan has proven himself to be one of the most intelligent filmmakers working in horror today, not to mention one of the jewels in Netflix’s crown when it comes to their original films. After breaking through with 2013’s ‘Oculus,’ Flanagan’s next feature ‘Hush’ was picked up by the streaming service, as was the director’s follow-up ‘Before I Wake.’ (Flanagan also helmed Blumhouse’s 2016 theatrical release ‘Ouija: Origin of Evil.’)
Through Flanagan’s lens, ‘Gerald’s Game’ never comes off sordid or voyeuristic; indeed, it’s profoundly unsexy from the very beginning, and only gets less pleasant as it proceeds, particularly once Jessie’s troubled sleep makes her relive her childhood molestation at the hands of her father (Henry Thomas, the casting of the former ‘ET’ child star somehow making the moment hurt even more).
As should be self-evident, this all makes for very tough viewing at points. But what makes ‘Gerald’s Game’ work so well is that, in common with many of King’s best-loved works (‘The Shawshank Redemption’ comes to mind), it is ultimately an optimistic tale about the power of hope and the survival instinct, even if in the face of overwhelming obstacles. And yes, Gugino’s Jessie has some major obstacles to overcome, and the price she must pay is high indeed, with one key scene towards the end guaranteed to rattle even the most hardened of viewers.
Finally, to face a question that has been asked surprisingly often of ‘It’ in recent weeks: should we necessarily consider ‘Gerald’s Game’ to be a horror movie? There are certainly ample grounds on which some might argue it isn’t, given the lack of any clearly supernatural threat, and the emphasis on traumas of an uncomfortably real nature.
However, even a cursory glance over decades of horror material both on the screen and the page should confirm that the genre has always dealt with such matters, be it directly or indirectly. Ghosts and monsters have always symbolised real-life threats and psychological troubles, but particularly from the mid-20th century onward, writers and filmmakers have been less veiled in their approach.
In tackling sexual assault in a blunt and unforgiving manner, ‘Gerald’s Game’ follows on from the likes of ‘The Last House on the Left,’ ‘I Spit on Your Grave,’ and more recently ‘Irreversible’ and ‘The Girl Next Door;’ whilst in presenting apparitions which may or may not be purely reflections of Jessie’s mental breakdown, it isn’t too far removed from Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House,’ famously filmed by Robert Wise as ‘The Haunting.’ Not for nothing, a new TV series adaptation of Jackson’s novel will be Flanagan’s next project for Netflix, with Gugino again starring.
No, ‘Gerald’s Game’ isn’t a basic ghost train ride loaded with obvious scares, but it’s a lazy assumption that horror cannot be anything more than that. Stephen King’s body of work alone stands testament to the fact that the genre does not preclude intelligent storytelling tackling serious issues; and in turn, Mike Flanagan’s filmography presents further evidence of this.
‘Gerald’s Game’ will dazzle you with its dramatic excellence and leave you with a lot to think about, even as it makes you squirm in your seat. Catch it on Neflix now.