“Isn’t this why we came up here? To spice things up and try and push the boundaries?” – Gerald Berlingame
Stephen King adaptations have always been in fashion. The man’s inhuman output of strong concepts and tales of horror means that he’ll be haunting our screens for decades to come, and the recent influx of quality adaptations has ushered joy into the lives of many movie-going fanatics. However when it was announced that renowned horror maestro Mike Flanagan (The Haunting of Hill House) was adapting his favourite of King’s offerings – Gerald’s Game – for Netflix, it seemed as though no fuss was made until its release.
King’s writing in Gerald’s Game presents a particular challenge for any filmmaker to adapt. Yet Flanagan and longtime co-writer Jeff Howard managed to pull it off. Not only is the film one of the most assured and confident pieces of horror to come out of the last five years, but it ranks as one of King’s best adaptations.
Jessie and Gerald Berlingame (a never-better Carla Guccino and on top-form Bruce Greenwood) are a couple who escape to a holiday home in the woods for a spicy weekend getaway in order to rejuvenate their love life. As part of proceedings it turns out Gerald himself harbours a particular fetish, and handcuffs Jessie to the reinforced bed frame after downing Viagra. Nervous and scared of her husband’s unknown primal instincts, she pleads to be freed,only for Gerald to suffer a heart attack and drop dead on top of her. Ten minutes into the film with another ninety to go, and already the stakes are at their highest. Of course this makes Gerald’s Game a (mostly) single-location experience; your body tightens as you feel as though you have to mentally stimulate yourself throughout the dry patches of such a difficult film, but no. Inside Flanagan and Howard’s bag of cinematic tricks are the tools which make the following hour and a half breeze by, though that’s not to knock the horror the film hides within.
By bypassing the stream-of-consciousness prose from King’s novel and translating Jessie’s inner thoughts as physical manifestations of both herself and Gerald, the primary issue with adapting such a difficult book is eradicated. Instead it’s replaced by a dialogue-driven game of cat-and-mouse, whereby Jessie’s memories and thoughts are working against her, jumping off at a point of no return – in this case seeing her husband’s dead body being feasted on by a hungry runaway dog.
“Well, I’m pretty sure you just lost your mind.” – Gerald Berlingame
This allows Guccino and Greenwood to flex their acting talent. Gerald’s smiles and continuous prodding of Jessie’s knowingly-deteriorating sanity start out slick and entertaining before becoming sinister, all without a change in performance. In life Gerald is a reserved, difficult man whose lovelife hinges on this getaway going well. We’re shown just enough of the outside of his character to allow Jessie’s consciousness to fill in the blanks with her own thoughts and theories on his character. It doesn’t matter whether or not we can trust him now, because he’s simply a different version of our trapped protagonist. The same goes for the other Jessie too. Whilst Guccino’s thriving and dwindling, trapped on the bed set she’s also set free to roam the room with a show of confidence and tenacity that drive the plot forward. If Jessie truly believed that things were hopeless then the film would grind to a halt. Then there just happens to be the problems of the slowly-bloodthirsty dog, the potentially reality of nobody finding her before she dies of starvation… and the giant bald demon-eyed ‘Moonlight Man’ (Carel Struycken) who visits her during the night and steals the bones of his victims.
Whilst the dog is arguably the most real threat outside of her restraints, the fabled ‘Moonlight Man’ is introduced merely as a symptom of Jessie’s madness – the equivalent of a dream sequence. Of course, Gerald laps up the chance to tease her over his very-real presence in the bedroom thanks to a wide-open front door. Struycken’s stature at seven feet tall is never played for grandiose scares, in fact Flanagan steers clear of any cheap tricks or jumpscares (aside maybe one). Everything feels assuredly quaint, whether it’s Jessie’s rationalisation of what’s happening to her or the Moonlight Man seeping out from the shadows in the corner of the room. The camera never steers away, and typically we’re faced head on with the horrors inside Jessie’s head in a matter-of-fact style that amps up tension wonderfully. It’s only when the film takes a detour inside her memories where the presentation style is mixed up a little.
“Women alone in the dark are like open doors, Jessie, and if they scream for help, who knows what might answer…” – Gerald Berlingame
Gerald’s Game arguably works most as a representation of post-traumatic stress disorder and inner empowerment. Through a series of vivid flashbacks and realisations we’re thrown into Jessie’s childhood and an experience that haunts her well into her adulthood. Henry Thomas does a sobering job as a conflicted father seeded with the burden of an unnatural and disgraceful thought, and Flanagan uses the flashback’s time period of a crimson solar eclipse to graft a stain on her experience that bleeds into reality as the two time periods seep into one another. As adult Jessie’s ordeal goes on, her memory takes over and she’s forced to confront her own prejudices and fears, her weaknesses and as a byproduct her strengths needed in order for her to abolish the hold that the memories have had over her for decades. It’s a moment of epiphany, as Guccino’s duel versions of Jessie agree it’s time to let the restraints die, and for a blissful moment Flanagan and company make you feel as if the worst is over…
Now, I consider myself to be fairly well-versed in gore and violence, but there’s something about the handcuff-scene in Gerald’s Game that continues to astound me (‘astound’ in this instance means ‘unable to watch unless it’s through my fingers’). It’s the only physical notion of violence in the whole film, and it’s still without build up, but for some reason the stark reality of the act leaves me in awe every time. It’s a riveting piece of makeup that hones in on a particular kind of pain, one that leaves a mark, and it leads perfectly into the film’s final confrontations.
When I first saw Gerald’s Game I incorrectly believed the final fifteen minutes to sour the overall mystery of the ‘Moonlight Man’. However, upon my rewatches I think the film’s ending is its strongest asset. Flanagan, never content with making merely ‘good’ horror, manages to rupture up the courage to end on a positive note by showcasing the strength that Jessie has amassed since her endeavor. It’s an empowering epilogue to a thought-provoking and eerie ordeal, and Guccino is once again a joy to behold on screen. She commands every ounce of attention, seemingly without trying, and whilst her final confrontation with the real ‘Moonlight Man’ might seem slight and inconsequential to some, it’s the defining moment of her character arc and the strongest place for Flanagan to roll the credits.
“You’re so much smaller than I remember…” – Jessie Berlingame
Gerald’s Game deserves a place on the lists of horror fanatics everywhere. At a time when films such as The Babadook and It Follows heap praise from critics due to the symbolic nature of their stories, Gerald’s Game holds its emotional storytelling close to its chest and chained to the bed. And there’s not a chance you can get away once you’re strapped in.