I know, I know, it’s not exactly the time of year that usually befits the practice of watching horror movies. The sprightly seedlings of spring are beginning to emerge from the gloomy grunge of the winter months. Halloween is a capacious seven months out. Now is surely a time for sunshine, fresh air, and pleasant feelings, not creepy tales of spine-tingling misadventures.
Nevertheless, like a demented Santa Claus seeking to spread spooky vibes in place of good cheer, here I am. And I bring tidings of a film born of the same diabolical DNA that characterizes the very best of horror cinema. The movie I speak of is Gerald’s Game, a deliciously dark descent into madness curated by filmmaker Mike Flanagan, a proven veteran of the horror genre who was working from source material created by the preeminent Stephen King.
Those are two very exciting names to attach to any project, especially one wrought with such dramatic potential as this particular story. Though it was a book widely considered to be unfilmable since its initial release in 1992, Flanagan and company detected no such creative constraints upon taking on the endeavour of adapting King’s piece for Netflix in 2017, and the resulting film is very, very good.
Gerald’s Game commences with Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) arriving at their vacation home, a lovely lake house that is isolated from the rest of civilization. The couple has been floundering in recent months, and this romantic tryst was thought of as a way to rekindle some of the dwindling spark between them. Their expectations for the weekend getaway were very different, which swiftly becomes apparent to both of them.
Gerald wants to spice things up a bit – actually, a lot – in the bedroom, which leads to him handcuffing both of Jessie’s wrists to the bedposts. This is not something she signed up for, nor is it something she is particularly on board with, and she voices her concerns thusly. This ignites an argument that culminates in Gerald having a heart attack and summarily dropping dead right on top of Jessie. Obviously horrified, and with no foreseeable path towards escaping her helpless situation, the remainder of the film explores the agonizing depths of anxiety, fear, and dread inherent in such a harrowing circumstance as the one Jessie faces.
If you’re wondering what exactly the rest of the 103-minute run time is filled with since the events described above take place within the first 10 or 15 minutes, you’re not alone. I had similar contemplations prior to my viewing of the film, having never read King’s original novel. What follows the unsettling opening moments is a thorough character study, one that is thoughtfully constructed, deliberately paced, and chillingly uncompromising. Jessie is a woman with more than a few emotional lacerations, many of which stem from a traumatic past that she has chosen to forget.
The film rests squarely and ably on the shoulders of Carla Gugino‘s all-world performance, a career-best turn that requires unflinching intensity for practically every single frame of the movie. She is truly tremendous, and without her presence, Gerald’s Game would have fallen extremely flat very early on in the proceedings. Thankfully, she was totally game for this uncommonly demanding role.
Mike Flanagan‘s previous horror offerings prioritize meaningful character development and thematic depth over creepy visuals and cheap jump scares. While he definitely piles on a fair amount of hair-raising chills, he also makes a point to never lose sight of his central characters. As a result, he makes horror films that possess unusually strong narrative focus and emotional resonance. Gerald’s Game is no different. This is a film that, first and foremost, has a substantive story to tell. The scares come second. If you ask me, that’s how it should be.
If I were to identify a particular weakness in Gerald’s Game, it would certainly be its ending. The latter portion of the third act lost some of the narrative steam that was present throughout the rest of the film. But even so, this is a strong Netflix original and a worthy Stephen King adaptation.
Drama, Horror | USA, 2017 | 18 | Netflix | Dir. Mike Flannigan | Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood