Gerald’s Game


Carla Gugino is literally a captive audience.

(2017) Thriller (Netflix) Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Carel Struycken, Henry Thomas, Chiara Aurelia, Kate Siegel, Natalie Roers, Tom Glynn, Stu Cookson, Gwendolyn Mutamba, Ben Pronsky, Jon Arthur, Nikia Reynolds, Kimberly Battista, Michael Amstutz, Chuck Borden, Dori Lumpkin, Chad Kinney, Bill Riales, John Ceallach, Tony Beard, Victoria Hardway, Adalyn Jones. Directed by Mike Flanagan

It has been the year of Stephen King adaptations, with Dark Tower and It having already made their theatrical runs and 1922 recently released on Netflix. This adaptation is of particular interest because 1) Mike Flanagan, who has been impressive with Oculus and Hush, is in the director’s chair here and 2), this is one of King’s lesser works that was thought to be virtually unfilmable. How wrong they were.

One can see why that thought occurred however. The movie is mostly set in a single bedroom with the protagonist alone and immobile for the bulk of the story. There is also a kinky sexuality to it that in the current atmosphere is both timely and perhaps may incite a certain segment of the population to point their fingers and cry shrilly “Objectification! Objectification! Objectification!” We are, these days, gunshy about sex (particularly of the kinkier variety) on both sides of the political aisle.

The marriage between successful attorney Gerald (Greenwood) and his trophy wife Jessie (Gugino) has been troubled for some time now and the two decide to take a romantic trip to a beautiful but remote vacation cabin to try and heat things up. Gerald’s idea of romance is a lot different than Jessie’s however; he wants to handcuff her to the bed and enact a rape fantasy on his wife. At first she goes along with it, but as Gerald gets deeper into the game she freaks out and demands that he stop and free her. At first he is petulant, like a little boy who’s been told he can’t have a cookie. Then he does what most little boys don’t do – he has a heart attack and dies.

Slowly the realization comes to Jessie that she is in an absolutely terrifying predicament; she has no way to free herself from the stainless steel cuffs, no way to get food or water and she is sharing the bedroom with her husband’s corpse and a hungry dog who is desperate enough to enjoy some Gerald tartare. As panic begins to set in and she realizes that nobody can hear her screams, she begins to speak with the angels and devils of her better nature – her angels represented by a strong, self-possessed version of herself and her devils by Gerald himself. While Gerald mostly relates the scenarios in which she dies a horrible death, the alter-Jessie figures out ingenious ways to get water and eventually to concoct a desperate plan to escape – one that will take all of the actual Jessie’s willpower and courage.

But there is soon another player in the play; a deathly, spectral figure with a bag of bones who is stalking her after dark. She realizes that as the last evening falls that he will come for her in the night…and she will join her husband as potential puppy chow if she doesn’t escape before then.

The script follows King’s book pretty faithfully but it lacks the sense of dread and terror that King was able to weave in the book – but to be fair, not every writer is as talented at that particular skill as King is. In fact, very few writers are. Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard turn this more into a suspense film than a supernatural thriller which is what King produced – but the Moonlight Man is excellently rendered, I’ll give them that.

I’ll also give you that this is the performance that I’ve been waiting for Gugino to deliver. It’s masterful as she captures both the strong, self-assured side of Jessie and the frightened, wounded and disregarded part of her. She spends nearly the entire movie in a negligee (and looks mighty fine doing it) but you never get a sense of her being exploited (although some may disagree); she’s a woman who is comfortable with her sexuality and one senses that if Gerald had actually had a romantic weekend getaway planned instead of a kinkfest, he’d have gotten plenty of action.

She and Greenwood actually work very well together. Greenwood is sixty-plus at this point but he looks a lot more buff than the overweight Gerald of the book; it’s possible that Gerald’s use of that Little Blue Pill may have been what done him in. The relationship between Jessie and Gerald is believable; these are people who feel like they’ve been together for awhile but have begun to diverge away from one another and neither one knows really how to get back on the same page – or if it’s even possible. They remain civil to one another but there is that undercurrent of tension between them that tells a story of frustrations not voiced and petty arguments that are.

There is a subplot about Jessie’s past about a terrible incident that takes place during a rare total eclipse that does a lot to explain her backstory. It’s sensitively handled and again is pretty timely considering the events of recent months but it might be a little disturbing for people who have a history of childhood sexual abuse.

All in all this turned out much better than I think most of us had a right to expect. It re-emphasizes that Flanagan is the genuine article, a master of horror films who tends to elevate every project he works on and this one is no exception. Not only is it maybe the best adaptation of King you’ll see this year, it is one of the better original films you’ll see on Netflix this year as well.

REASONS TO GO: Gugino gives a career-defining performance and she works very well with Greenwood. The plot is fiendishly clever.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is not nearly as creepy as the book.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, a good deal of sexuality and some disturbing images and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dialogue and plot devices from the film reference such Stephen King books as Dolores Claiborne, Cujo and The Dark Tower.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Girlfriend Experience
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
More of Six Days of Darkness

Ouija: Origin of Evil


Never turn your back on your kid for even a minute...

Never turn your back on your kid for even a minute…

(2016) Horror (Universal) Annalise Basso, Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson, Henry Thomas, Parker Mack, Doug Jones, Chelsea Gonzalez, Lincoln Melcher, Nicholas Keenan, Michael Weaver, Ele Keats, Eve Gordon, Chad Heffelfinger, Nina Mansker, John Prosky, Kate Siegel, Sam Anderson, Gary Patrick Anderson, Alexis G. Zall, Halle Charlton, Sierra Davey, Lin Shaye. Directed by Mike Flanagan

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Some of us are fascinated by the occult. Science tells us that there’s nothing there, nothing that can be measured or quantified but anyone with even a lick of sense can tell you that science doesn’t know everything; often things that are currently unexplainable may seem like the mysterious or the magical. The fact of the matter is that we don’t understand more than what we do.

In the Los Angeles of 1967 lives a widow, Alice Zander (Reaser). Her husband Roger (Weaver) had passed away recently and their daughters – teenage Lina (Basso) and preteen Doris (Wilson) are grieving in their own way. Doris, in particular, is having a difficult time handling the death of her father, praying to him at night rather than to God. There are those at her school who think she’s a little weird. More than a little, in fact.

Alice makes ends meet by conducting fake seances in which her daughters help with special effects. Alice rationalizes all this by saying that they are helping people find closure which I suppose they are. Lulu is too young and naive to question anything but Lina finds herself believing in nothing.

In point of fact, Lina feels constrained in her house and wants to do the things that teenage girls do in 1967. So like any good red-blooded American teen, she sneaks out of the house and goes to a party with a bunch of her friends, including would-be boyfriend Mikey (Mack). There she discovers the magic and the mystery of a Ouija board. Unfortunately, her friends are discovered by an adult and Lina is handed over to an angry Alice. However, Alice is intrigued by the Ouija board and brings one home to help with the act.

Immediately Doris takes an unhealthy interest in the board – or vice versa. Desperate to communicate with her daddy, she has no idea that there are rules governing the use of the board or how dangerous it is to break them. She certainly doesn’t realize that she’s opened a door that may bring something into this world that wants nothing more than to terrorize – and to kill.

This is a prequel to the wildly successful but critically panned Ouija from 2014. There is an appearance by Lin Shaye in a post-credits sequence that links the two films (not for nothing, but she plays an older version of one of the characters in this movie) but there is little to connect the two films. We do see one of the apparitions from the first film alive and well (relatively speaking) in this film.

The acting here is okay but not memorable. There aren’t a lot of recognizable names here, although most of the cast has experience mostly on the small screen. Thomas, the waif from E.T. is surprisingly strong as a sympathetic priest/principal at the Catholic school that the two daughters attend. Reaser, best known for her work on the Twilight series, shows some promise as the single mom which is a very different role than Esme Cullen.

Flanagan, who had three films scheduled to come out this year (one, Before I Wake, has been shelved indefinitely by troubled distributor Relativity and is unlikely to come out before next year) is becoming a very solid director of horror films for the studios. While he might not have the indie cred of a Ti West or a Jennifer Kent or an Adam Wingard, he has proven that he can direct strong horror films while remaining within studio constraints. There’s nothing here that’s so over-the-top that it can’t tolerate a PG-13 rating (which the studios shoot for, with rare exception, for their horror movies) but it manages to come by some pretty effective scares without resorting to an overuse of jump scares which are prevalent in studio horror movies today.

And to be honest, the studio restrictions are what really drag the movie down in my opinion. In trying to make a movie that fits within studio horror film parameters, in many ways it feels like Flanagan has been constrained from making a horror movie that would really blow our socks off. There is plenty here to work with, but there is nothing here that really gave me a truly “wow” moment. It’s like eating vanilla ice cream when what you really crave is salted caramel.

There’s nothing wrong with vanilla, mind you, but I would have liked there to be more layered flavor profiles here. The movie is exactly what you’d expect it would be. Horror movies are at their most effective when they push the boundaries. Those that respect boundaries will always be little more than a trip on Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride; spooky but not scary.

REASONS TO GO: There are some pretty horrific moments here and some really good scares.
REASONS TO STAY: The film really doesn’t break any new ground.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some pretty horrific and terrifying images, some violence as well as thematic elements that some might find disturbing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house that Lina sneaks out to party with her friends in is the same house set used in the David Duchovny TV show Aquarius.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lights Out
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Day 5 of Six Days of Horror!