Director: Mike Flannigan
Cast: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Henry Thomas, Chiara Aurelia, Kate Siegel, and Carel Struycken
Gerald’s Game is a bone-chilling, nightmare-fueled horror thriller with what initially seems like a very restricting premise. Based on a Stephen King novel that’s well over 300 pages, the story follows an older married couple, Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) and Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino), as they drive out to their isolated vacation home in the woods, hoping to save their troubled marriage and reignite their sex life. Gerald, a successful lawyer with an aggressive personality, gets things off to a kinky start by shackling each of Jessie’s hands to the bedposts. He begins acting out what appears to be a rape fantasy, and she kicks him off of her and tells him that it isn’t working at all. Before he can unshackle her, he suffers from a severe heart attack and drops dead on the floor.
Before the bedroom antics, Gerald left the front door open, which allows for a stray dog to wonder in and feast on his dead body. Jessie screams for help, but there isn’t a neighbor around for miles, and the housekeepers worked on the house before the couple arrived, so they won’t be coming to her aid anytime soon. There’s a cup of water on the shelf above the bed (Gerald placed it there after taking his second Viagra), and while she’s able to reach it, she can’t bring the cup to her mouth and drink it. After screaming for hours and seeing the dog take a chunk out of her husband, Jessie begins hallucinating Gerald circling around the bed and taunting her from the grave. Before long, she begins hallucinating a version of herself too, one that’s stronger in spirit and encourages her to keep fighting.
While it might seem like a 100-minute movie of a woman handcuffed to a bed might grow monotonous after a while, screenwriters Jeff Howard and Mike Flannigan throw in two elements to keep the terror high and the story emotionally draining. The first is the introduction of a figure who’ll be known as The Moonlight Man (Carel Struycken), a tall and imposing character shrouded in a cloak and carrying a small treasure chest of jewels and human bones. Director Mike Flannigan is such a master in creating terror with nothing but shadows and expert camera placement (and sometimes with no music at all), that when he first introduces this seemingly spectral figure, the effect is so frightening that I had a mind to stop the movie and continue watching it when there was more light outside.
The second element is revealed in flashbacks, and goes deeper into a pivotal and traumatic moment from Jessie’s past. Like a couple of characters from King’s stories (including Beverly Marsh from It), Jessie was sexually abused by her father (Henry Thomas; yes, the little boy from E.T.) when she was a child. The abusive incident in question, which involved them sitting on a bench together watching an eclipse, is so grueling and horrifying that some might find it exploitative, but the most shocking moment happens after, when he talks about the incident with her in her bedroom. It’s just dialogue here, yet both the dialogue and Thomas’ performance are so manipulative, abusive, and frighteningly convincing that it has a gut-churning effect.
Coping with the abuse from her past proves to be a crucial key to her survival, so that the story becomes less one of survival and more one of a woman battling her inner demons. Greenwood is excellent as the taunting and unsupportive Gerald, but this is Gugino’s movie, and she attacks her role with such fire and conviction that it should (no joke) garner her recognition come Oscar time. I’ve always liked Gugino as an actress, but I’ve never been as blown away by her work as I was here. This is easily her best performance, and proof of what a truly great actress she can be when given the right role.
Because the movie was made on such a low-budget, there are certain shots of the aforementioned eclipse that do look a little fake, and while some revelations in the film’s final minutes are creepy and satisfying (especially those made about the Moonlight Man), the concluding moments do tend to go on for far too long. But given how effective and engrossing the entire movie is, those seem like such minor complaints. Gerald’s Game is an amazingly dark film, so when it comes to which Stephen King adaptation this year was the most entertaining, It is the obvious answer. Yet when choosing which 2017 King adaption was the most harrowing and frightening, Gerald’s Game easily takes home the gold.
Final Grade: *** ½ (out of ****)
Not Rated, but would definitely get a very hard R for some disturbing violent images (with one of the most disgusting and unwatchable moments of gore that I’ve seen in a LONG time), strong disturbing content, some sexuality, profanity.