‘Gerald’s Game’ (2017) | Fantastic Fest Review

Why has 2017 become the year of Stephen King? In September alone, I have seen three new film adaptations of the man’s works. Quite frankly, though, it’s not much of a surprise. There has always been a steady rate of King adaptations since the 1970s, and it hasn’t stopped. Plus, with the rate he puts out material, it’s not unusual there are so many. But three in a month is a bit overkill, particularly when I didn’t care for the hugely popular It or the first of two Netflix produced King adaptations I saw at this year’s Fantastic Fest, 1922. Heading into Gerald’s Game, my skepticism was high. That skepticism clearly melted away as the film revealed to be a tight, effective little horror movie, even managing to get a few squirms and jolts from me.

Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) are taking a trip out to their vacation home with the purpose of spicing up their sex life in order to try and save their withering marriage. Gerald’s idea of spiciness includes handcuffing Jessie to the bed to enact a sort of rape fantasy, a scenario that Jessie quickly wants to back away from. However, before she can get uncuffed from the bed, Gerald has a heart attack and dies (not a spoiler, this is the premise of the movie). It is then up to Jessie to figure out how to get out of this situation, and if she can’t do that, just staying alive until someone shows up in a couple of days.

Her inner drama manifests itself in visions of Gerald and herself as a sort of angel and demon on her shoulders. Here’s how you know the film is working: this does not feel stupid. This device could easily cheapen the stakes and give your film a layer of silliness it does not need. Director Mike Flanagan unapologetically dives into these scenes, making you buy into the device without a second thought. Plus, Jessie’s evolving delirium could feasibly make her hallucinate these figures. And because that is handled so well, the introduction of the Moonlight Man (Carel Struycken) creates a wonderful tension since you can believe this possible personification of death could be in her head or actually standing in the room with her.

Carla Gugino deserves more parts like this. She’s put through the emotional ringer and delivers it all beautifully, not to mention the second part of vision Jessie she gets to play. I also want to give props to costume designer Lynette Meyer for putting her in a slip that isn’t skimpy and exploitative, a direction that they could have easily with a premise not out of place in a trashy B-movie. You don’t have anything distracting you from Gugino’s plight. Greenwood is also so good at putting a sinister smirk on a condescending line. His costuming, on the other hand, leaves little to the imagination, as it’s just a pair of boxer briefs. I wouldn’t call it distracting, but there were a number of moments where I thought, “Wow. Bruce got in shape.”

I haven’t seen a film from Mike Flanagan since 2013’s Oculus, and while I didn’t really care for it, I did see potential in his ability to craft horror moments. Gerald’s Game delivers on that promise. He really makes you put yourself in Jessie’s cuffs and understands why being trapped is frightening. He doesn’t need to get hysterical with his filmmaking. There aren’t the long, lingering silences abruptly ended by loud banging. He doesn’t throw his camera around the room to try and make one room more dynamic. Flanagan keeps it small, which best suits this material, and when there is one particular scene that gets big and graphic, it delivers with an even bigger punch than it would had the whole movie been pitched there.

Gerald’s Game does have one big stumble: the ending. The last five-ish minutes of a sort of epilogue nosedives the film completely. It explains too much, goes on too long, and totally changes what kind of movie this has been for the previous ninety minutes. From what I’m told, this comes straight out of King’s book, but this is why strict adaptation of material is not always the best route to go. You really leave the theater, or I guess in this case your living room since this is a Netflix film, with a taste worse than bitter in your mouth.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that Gerald’s Game was some horror masterpiece prior to its ending or anything like that. In the realm of King adaptations, its nowhere near The Shining or even The Mist. This is just a small movie with moderate ambitions firing on all cylinders. It has a few really good scare moments and two terrific central performances. I think watching it a home may hurt your ability to go along with it, as seeing it with a full, squirming audience always brings a great amount of delight, but if you’re looking for a fun hour and a half of King horror, this delivers.

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