Stephen King Horror-Thon: Gerald’s Game (2017)
“The people who were supposed to protect you from the monsters turned out to be monsters themselves.”
Gerald’s Game was adapted from Stephen King’s 1992 novel of the same name, taking an unusually long period (25 years) to go from book to film. That’s because Gerald’s Game was considered to be impossible to adapt into film– given that almost the entire film takes place with woman handcuffed helplessly to bedposts.
But really this psychological horror story was just waiting for the right (read: adequately ambitious and daring) director to take on the project. Mike Flanagan was the perfect fit, after directing five consecutive well-received horror flicks including the haunted-mirror horror flick Oculus (2013), the home invasion horror movie Hush (2013), the much more effective sequel to Ouija– Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016).
Flanagan’s directing prowess proved to be a perfect fit for Gerald’s Game which grounds the horror with the emotional trauma of its protagonist. Gerald’s Game begins wholesomly enough with Jessie and Gerald, a wife and husband (respectively), who are visiting their lake house in Alabama for a romantic get-away.
Jessie feeds a stray dog some raw meat outside, while Gerald start popping Viagras inside in anticipation of some kinky sex to come. They both make their way to the bedroom, where Gerald restrains Jessie with some handcuffs, which she’s initially surprised by. But she goes with it– despite the married couple clearly not being on the same page sexually.
Then Gerald requests that Jessie cry out for help during the foreplay, which she half-heartedly complies. But she’s quickly turned off by her husband’s very rapey vibes and pumps the breaks. They then begin arguing and Gerald’s fragile ego is hurt by Jessie’s reluctance to fulfilling his rape fantasy. Then after Gerald threatens to not untie her from the bed, he promptly has a heart attack and dies.
Gerald Burlingame: People are safe from ghouls and ghosts and the living dead in the daylight. And they’re usually safe from them at night, if they’re with others. But a person alone in the dark… women alone in the dark are like open doors, Jessie, and if they scream for help, who knows what might answer. Who knows what people see in the moment of their solitary death. Is it so hard to believe that some of them might have died of fear? No matter what the words on the death certificate say… died of fear… because they saw, at their bedside, the Moonlight Man. Maybe that’s just what death looks like.
The remainder of the film revolves around Jessie’s attempts to escape the situation alive and with her sanity intact. Much of the narrative progresses inside Jessie’s mind (much like Flanagan did with his other Netflix-exclusive horror flick Hush) as well as with flashback dating back to her childhood. Jessie must confront her past demons and unreconciled past traumas that in their own unique, intricate ways led her to the sticky situation she finds herself in.
It’s difficult to discuss Gerald’s Game without bringing up Stephen King’s earlier masterpiece of an adaptation, Dolores Claiborne. Both are interconnected, taking place in the same narrative universe and sharing some of the same themes and motifs. Key events in both films take place during the same eclipse and both involve incestual child molestation. At one point in Gerald’s Game, Jessie dreams from the perspective of Dolores Claiborne, standing over a well during an eclipse.
Both films have also been praised for their feminist themes and careful handling of some real-life horrors including sexual abuse and gaslighting. Gerald’s Game is so much more than a survival horror-thriller about a Jessie’s escape from bondage. It’s also about her escape from her emotional shackles and her resolve to find strength in her darkest hour.
At release, critics hailed Gerald’s Game for its small-scale suspense and dedicated acting. Stephen King also loved it, calling Gerald’s Game “hypnotic, horrifying and terrific.” Flanagan and King’s fondness for one another was further cemented when Flanagan was hired to direct another upcoming King adaptation, Doctor Sleep, which is a sequel to Doctor Sleep.
Ultimately Gerald’s Game never really received the recognition that it deserved– maybe because it debuted exclusively on Netflix or maybe because It was the only Stephen King adaptation people cared about in 2017. But Gerald’s Game is one of the finest and most powerful King adaptations to date– thanks to a tight script, director Mike Flanagan’s careful attention developing its characters, and one of Carla Gugino’s career best performances.
“Gerald’s Game” is available to stream exclusively on Netflix. And be sure to check out the other entries in the Stephen King Horror-Thon right here on Horror Theory