So, much like the tons of Netflix-watching peeps out there, my Better Half and I opted to check out The Haunting of Bly Manor this weekend. Bly Manor is the second ‘haunting’ series brought to the streaming service by talented horror writer / director Mike Flanagan, the first being the solidly effective The Haunting of Hill House (2018). Once we reached the MOSTLY satisfying finale (overall it’s a good follow-up to the first series that is able to do its own thing), I decided that I wanted to go back and check out another of Flanagan’s Netflix Originals that had thus eluded me, that being 2017’s Stephen King adaptation Gerald’s Game.
I remember when this one was first released and how curious I was to check it out. I’m a sucker for simple thriller-type stories that involve people trapped in single-location settings having to rely on available resources and ingenuity to escape, a category that this flick’s basic story essentially is.
Gerald’s Game opens with a wealthy married older couple, ‘Gerald’ (Bruce Greenwood) and ‘Jessie’ (Carla Gugino) heading to their vacation home to (hopefully) reset their faltering sex life and therefore their relationship as a whole. In short order, ‘Gerald’ reveals a previously unknown penchant for S+M when he introduces a couple pairs of handcuffs to the mix and the desire to play out some twisted rape fantasy while all fired up on boner pills. Things take a nasty turn when ‘Jessie’ quickly loses her taste for this new and uncomfortable game of ‘Gerald’s and, while still cuffed to the bed, angrily confronts him about it. During this altercation, ‘Gerald’ suffers a fatal heart attack and keels over dead, leaving ‘Jessie’ held captive and vulnerable as she struggles to think of a way out of her dire and deadly predicament. As this plays out, she must contend with her own traumatized mind taunting her with seemingly-sentient visions of both ‘Gerald’ and herself as she tries to cope. There’s also a resurgence of a childhood trauma and the presence of a large feral dog that manages to slip into the house, prompted by the scent of blood in the air, that also must be dealt with.
Shit gets worse before it gets better, that’s for sure!
At this point, Mike Flanagan has more than proven himself as a reliable and creative horror director, boasting such impressive flicks as Oculus (2013), Hush (2016), and Doctor Sleep (2019) (among others) in his filmography. In my humble opinion, he currently stands up there among the best in the genre. Here again, the man proves he knows what the hell he’s doing on The Page and behind the camera.
From the get-go, the Casting needs to be mentioned. Flanagan has proven a deft hand when it comes to directing and a big part of that has to do with his savvy casting and how they deliver. On top of his current stable of ‘regulars’ – Henry Thomas (E.T. The Extraterrestrial), Kate Siegel (Hush) and of course, Carla Gugino (Sin City) (all of whom feature prominently in both Haunting series’), we also get proven Canadian(!) talent Bruce Greenwood (Below) giving us a strong performance in a creative role that drifts between sympathetic and repulsive effortlessly. Even though ‘Gerald’ kicks the bucket early on, he continues to be a menacing presence for the duration of the story and definitely holds his own against Gugino, who’s show it ultimately is. It was also nice (and weird) to see Henry Thomas so soon onscreen again, after having literally just finished watching him tackle a COMPLETELY different character in Bly Manor (solid British accent, Henry!) a couple hours earlier. I’ve been a fan of his ever since 1982 (like so many other Children of the 80’s!), when he made me bawl my eyes out as ‘Elliott’ in Steven Spielberg’s timeless E.T. and I’m always glad to see him still getting juicy roles, which these days are almost exclusively under Flanagan’s direction. That being said, the direction he takes with the character of ‘Tom’, Gugino’s father seen in uncomfortable flashbacks, is rather hideous, especially one key scene involving a bench, a lap and an eclipse. Gross shit…but gross shit done effectively and efficiently, and I commend Thomas on bravely taking on such a dirtbag, but also nuanced, character. But, getting back down to brass tacks, this is definitely Gugino’s show and she kills it as she gives us multiple layers to ‘Jessie’s collapsing mental state.
While Gerald’s Game fits more comfortably into the realm of Psychological Thriller than flat-out Horror, it definitely has it’s share of The Gruesome, especially one scene that left me feeling physically ill, no bullshit. See, here’s the thing – all my life, I’ve had a Blood Phobia, going back to some of my first memories (landlord on tractor having eye pierced by tree branch, when I was about 3 years old, stands out). In Real Life, if I see spilled blood in any kind of quantity or smeared on certain surfaces, I get queasy and faint, and in extreme circumstances, I black out. It’s embarrassing to be a 43 year old man who still has to contend with inconvenient, silly shit like that, but hey…it is what it is, I guess. The point is that many times over the years, I’ve been confronted with the same dumbass question – “if blood freaks you out…why do you watch horror movies?” To which I have to say – “the key word there is ‘movies’. I KNOW it’s fake…make-believe…not real.” HOWEVER, every once in a while, I stumble upon a gore scene that unexpectedly kicks that phobia into gear, and I have to give mad props to the filmmakers for Going for the Gold…and pulling it off. Gerald’s Game boasts one such scene, a scene so in-your-face graphic and horrifying that I had to look away, as I was literally feeling nauseous and light-headed. *round of applause* If a movie can get THAT happening, they’ve done something right, while showing something REALLY wrong.
All in all, I was impressed with Gerald’s Game, as I suspected I would be. The small cast does a great job with the fleshed-out characters occupying the deceptively simple narrative, the atmosphere is effectively sinister and there are a couple legitimately decent plot twists along the way. Gore hounds will get a couple delicious scenes (that goddamn dog and THOSE sounds! Just saying.) and fans of Thrillers will be well-served by the steady helpings of suspense and tension that ramp up as things play out. If I had to toss a Negative into the mix, I would say that the 1 hour, 43 minute run-time MIGHT be a little heavier than needed, given the simplicity of the core story and that some trims to the 2nd Act may not have hurt. But overall, I was impressed by Gerald’s Game and can easily recommend it to fans of both Horror and Thriller movies, as well as audiences who appreciate something of a Character Study, as this one tries to dig deep.
Play a round of Gerald’s Game. I dare you.
You can catch Gerald’s Game on Netflix.