Stephen King is a writer I have a lot of admiration for. As a devout horror fan and horror-writer myself, I have a certain respect for any writer who shares that infatuation. In King’s case, I also respect him for ambition, range, and talent. Certain “academics” might chastise him, comparing him negatively to other mainstream writers, but I am happy to call myself a fan, with The Green Mile (a non-horror, who’d have thought?) serving as my personal favorite. Obviously, with successful books comes the intent for successful movies, and with the IT film grossing over seven-hundred million dollars, I would suspect King adaptations will continue to be all the rage (in-fact, in the time it took me to write this, a Children of the Corn trilogy has been released, they’ve remade Carrie again, and a Sleeping Beauties film has been greenlit). Although I’m sure some anticipated it more, for me, Gerald’s Game came out of nowhere. Arriving on the Netflix streaming service, Gerald’s Game brings director Mike Flanagan back to the platform. He’s a talented genre director. Oculus was decent, Hush was decent, Ouija: Origin of Evil was decent, and … Before I Wake was … well, three is enough. Does Gerald’s Game amount to another solid outing, how does it stack with other King adaptations, does it flounder in my Search for the Best Horror film or does it flourish? Here are my thoughts …
In a catalogue comprised of crazed clown entities and telekinetic teenagers, Gerald’s Game offers a simpler, more straightforward story to follow. A husband and wife arrive at an isolated lake-house, hoping that by changing the scenery and trying new things in the bedroom, they will breathe air into their dissipating love-life. Nothing too out of the ordinary, until the husband Gerald, played by Bruce Greenwood, decides to succumb his wife Jessie, played by Carla Gugino, to his rape fantasy, which involves handcuffing her to the bed. Understandably, Jessie isn’t completely on-board with joining Gerald on the sexual escapade and demands she be uncuffed from the bed. Gerald doesn’t comply and it’s left ambiguous whether he would have freed her, suffering a heart-attack and falls on the floor. This leaves Jessie handcuffed to the bed; trapped.
Smack-dab in the middle of nowhere, she isn’t left with many solutions to her predicament. Her screams for help fall on deaf-ears and the bed-posts are too sturdy and solid to break. Trapped on the bed, Jessie reflects on life (repressed childhood trauma and her marriage) and does whatever she can to survive, using her limited environment to stall her impending death, be it from starvation, fear, or something worse. Gerald’s Game finds a lot of mileage in its minimalist approach.
In-fact, such praise is an understatement to what the film is truly able to accomplish, finding a level of significant on such a low-scale that higher-caliber horror fare never even provide a whiff of. Carla Gugino is an actress I’ve seen a lot of over the years. I’ve always liked her to an extent, but from what I’d seen of her, I’ve never seen her given anything substantive to sink her teeth into. I’ve seen her into Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids and Sin City, but until Gerald’s Game, I don’t think I ever truly appreciated how talented and capable she is. Her committed performance is a central-key to what allows Gerald’s Game to succeed the way it does, tackling contrasting emotions ranging from declarative frustration and cynicism to emotional vulnerability and grief. Backed, as well, by the commendable performance of Bruce Greenwood, who brings the layered character of Gerald to life, relaying a character with qualities worthy of disdain and affection, particularly when projected from Jessie’s psyche.
This isn’t only one for the career highlight reel of Gugino, as director Mike Flanagan delivers his strongest feature film yet, providing a simple, but immensely effective execution. The cinematography and music also make commendable contributions, providing a hypnotic film that draws empathy and emotion from its audience. It’s attention-to-detail and the way it carries its run-time without lulling is a testament to everyone involved.
For me, I no longer look at horror as a vessel simply to instill fright. Most films don’t scare me, but, instead, I marvel at and appreciate their ideas and delivery. This film boasts ideas and delivery to spare, but it comes with an emotional-depth I believe accomplishes an attachment to the lead-protagonist and a sense of genuine dread for what awaits her. Her festering thoughts and emotions could have easily amounted to an archetype and a cliché, but with the writing and lead-actress rising to the occasion, it can express the very real horror of what can be tucked away in a person’s mind.
Gerald’s Game is not only a great horror film, but it’s a great film in-general, and is amongst the best Stephen King stories ever put to film, if not atop the list.