Mike Flanagan, the writer/director behind Oculus (2013) Hush (2016) and Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) keeps his horror hot streak intact with his stunning adaptation of Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game. The Netflix Original film stars Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood as a married couple who retreat to their vacation home in the woods to rekindle their relationship with some kinky sex games. When her husband dies of a heart attack, Jessie Burlingame is left handcuffed to the bed, far from the nearest neighbor, unable to call for help with food and water just out of reach.
Gerald’s Game was considered to be virtually unadaptable as the majority of the narrative takes place inside the mind of Jessie Burlingame as the hours pass with her handcuffed to the headboard of her bed. Her mind wanders to disturbing childhood incidents and drifts into hallucinations as she becomes dehydrated over time. The story is internal, psychological. So how do you dramatize a story that at first glance seems so un-cinematic?
Flanagan employs the clever technique of using physical stand-ins to represent Jessie’s subconscious. Her recently deceased husband talks to her as her mind cycles through her options and attempts to solve the dilemma in which she finds herself. Flashback sequences fill in her backstory and explain so many of her poor life choices. As with many King novels, the past influences the present, and the scenes between Henry Thomas as Jessie’s father and Chiara Aurelia as her 12-year-old self are nothing short of gut-wrenching.
King’s supernatural bent tends to work much better on the written page than on the big or small screen. When his creatures and apparitions are brought to life visually, they can be inadvertently funny or distracting rather than eliciting the desired scares. Our imaginations produce better bogeymen than the average horror film. However, Gerald’s Game is not an average horror film, and Flanagan deftly blends reality and the supernatural. The incorporation of the Moonlight Man from the novel could have sent the narrative tumbling into B-movie territory, but those sequences are perfectly rendered and add some well-staged scares to the proceedings.
Carla Gugino shines as Jessie Burlingame. She spends the majority of the film without the use of her limbs, but her performance is never hindered by the plot mechanics of the film. Her emotions in her eyes and on her face more than make up for the limited physicality of the role. Her final attempt to free herself from her chains is a cringe-inducing master class in practical effects work. The groans and gasps from the audience were audible at the Fantastic Fest screening I attended.
It’s been a bumper crop this fall for Stephen King adaptations. The big screen release of IT shattered fall box office records, and the forthcoming Netflix adaptation of the King novella 1922 is excellent with a transformative, stand-out performance from Thomas Jane. So when I tell you that Gerald’s Game is the best King adaptation of 2017, that’s saying something.
Gerald’s Game premieres on Netflix Instant on Friday, September 29, 2017.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.