J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Gerald’s Game: Mike Flanagan Adapts Stephen King

Only Stephen King would dedicate a book that revolves around S&M sex to his wife and her five sisters. Sure, it is about empowerment, but it is still weird. It was also considered one of the books least favored by King’s fans and the hardest to adapt for the big screen. Rather inconveniently, Jessie Burlingame is all tied up (or cuffed up) and can’t come to the phone in Mike Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game (trailer here), which starts streaming tomorrow on Netflix.

This was supposed to be a naughty weekend that would help Jessie and Gerald Burlingame rekindle their marriage. However, the handcuffs and rough role-playing just didn’t work for her. First that made her husband resentful and then it made him dead from a massive stress coronary. Unfortunately, she is still hand-cuffed to the knobby four poster bed.

The newly widowed Burlingame slowly realizes she is trapped and nobody will come looking for them in their out-of-the-way vacation home until it is too late. To make matters worse, a Cujo-light stray dog starts nibbling on Gerald’s body. She still has the strength to shoe him away from her, but soon she will be too weak.

This is the perfect time to panic, but her subconscious conjures up visions of a particularly dismissive version of Gerald and an idealistically self-reliant analog of herself to goad and encourage herself to survive. Conversely, the extreme trauma of her situation spurs flashbacks to episodes of molestation and emotional manipulation from Burlingame’s childhood, which are much less motivating. She also starts having visions of a boogeyman she starts to call the “Moonlight Man,” who must surely be a hallucination, right?

To a large extent, Gerald’s Game functions like a memory play, but with a ticking clock and life-and-death stakes. The adaptation penned by Flanagan and Jeff Howard could almost be repurposed as a stage play, but it would be hard for Burlingame to have conversations with the her she always wanted to be. Regardless, they defy expectations with a high-percentile Stephen King movie, ranking with Misery and Cronenberg’s original Dead Zone.

Bruce Greenwood is one of the most reliable character actors working today, but he shows a fiercely malevolent side in Gerald’s Game that we have never had the chance to see from him before. He is quite flamboyantly sinister for a dead man, but Greenwood is also frighteningly believable, leading us to suspect this is closer to the real Gerald Burlingame than his wife ever admitted to herself. Carla Gugino does some of the best work of her career as both Jessie Burlingames, pretty much covering the entire range of human emotion. Of course, Carel Struycken (the Giant in Twin Peaks and Lurch in the Adams Family movies) is perfectly cast as the Midnight Man.

This was supposed to a triumphant year for King, thanks to the one-two punch of The Dark Tower and It. 2017 will indeed turn out that way for the Maine Mangler, but it will be due to the tandem of It (a monster hit) and Gerald’s Game. This could be the first Netflix original film that generates the publicity heat of their original series. Likewise, it should skyrocket Flanagan to the top-tier of horror directors, following his way, way better than it needed to be Blumhouse prequel, Ouija: Origin of Evil. The sexual abuse scenes (a suspiciously frequent King motif) might have been trimmed a little, but as it is, Gerald’s Game is quite a smartly conceived, nerve-janglingly tense and claustrophobic horror thriller. Better than It, Gerald’s Game is highly recommended for fans of King and psychologically twisted tales when it launches tomorrow (9/29) on Netflix.

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