It’s been an odd year for Stephen King adaptations this year, with the miserable lows of The Dark Tower coming only a few weeks prior to the release of It. I suppose it was a lucky coincidence that Fantastic Fest had two on display here this year, both of which were produced by Netflix, and both of which came from works that few would put near the top of their must-see list. I’m happy to report that one of them — the erotic drama Gerald’s Game — is a solid little thriller that hums along at a great pace, and the other, 1922, may have been better off left on the page.
This 1993 novel has an odd reputation amongst Stephen King fans, one that I’ve only experienced second-hand, but still, the distaste and frustration that the master’s devotees regard it with seems to proceed it. Apparently, it was also regarded as unadaptable for the screen, given that so much of the action happens inside the head of its protagonist, Jeanie (a swell Carla Gugino), as she’s handcuffed to a bedframe for most of the runtime. Yet director Mike Flanagan has uncovered the strengths within the text, and has used it to tell a story about the shameful effects of abuse, presented to us in an interesting and somewhat novel way. It helps that he’s found a great lead duo in Gugino and her co-lead, the always-appreciated Bruce Greenwood, who plays the titular Gerald who plays the titular sex-game with his wife to the detriment of all.
You see, Gerald can’t get it up without one of two things being present: Viagra, which this movie is most definitely not an advertisement for; and a mild air of sadism that he wants to make heavier in the air when he and his wife go on a vacation to add a little spark to their failing marriage. So, he uses two police-grade pairs of handcuffs to chain her to the bed, and they try to fuck a few times before Gerald starts to take it a bit too far. Jeanie rebuffs him, and he starts acting a little funny. She still thinks it’s part of the game when his left arm goes numb and he grabs at his chest and groans painfully, and the next thing you know, Gerald’s lying on top of her, unbreathing, dead as a doornail, while she’s still chained to the bedpost. That’s roughly when she starts to lose her mind, and she sees manifestations of her ideal self and Gerald, who give her advice on her predicament and monologue about death (played here by Carel Struycken, best known to Twin Peaks fans as the Giant or, more recently, the Fireman) and the troubles that she’s faced in her life, which are many. And she’ll try to escape, of course, though it might come at a great cost.
The imaginary persona dynamic works well, especially in the single setting environment (though heavy flashbacks into the past aren’t that great), and it keeps things witty and constantly moving. It’s shot attractively and compellingly, and it doesn’t have that Made-For-TV movie that certain other Netflix films have had in the past. Threats mount — a stray dog with a hunger for fresh meat, dehydration, bruising, and, of course, death itself — and Flanagan does a great job managing these without taking his foot off of the emotional gas. It’s great to see both actors given material well worth their time, which is a rarity these days unfortunately — Gugino is regularly misused on network television, and Greenwood isn’t nearly as present as he should be in our media landscape after the Star Trek movies — and they’re given the chance to play broad and emotional roles, especially the further we get into Jeanie’s head. What we find there is dark and sad, especially in the past, but it’s handled tastefully for the most part. That’s not to say it isn’t a totally tame ride, though; there’s some gore in here that turned my stomach upside down during the main plot’s finale, and it’s the first time I got to hear a Fantastic Fest audience audibly shudder once it happens.
It’s only in the last 20 minutes that Gerald’s Game truly loses its way, in which, once the horrors of the initial experience are dealt with and finished, Flanagan decides to wrap up the story exactly how King did in his novel. This ending is a dramatic pace-kill, and it threatens to upend the entire film with a Psycho-esque spelling out of its somewhat supernatural elements, information that was neither needed or asked for, and it’s kind of a shame that Flanagan (and, I guess, King) felt the need to especially go there. But, warts and all, it’s probably one of the best Stephen King adaptations to hit cinemas since Frank Darabont’s The Mist, and that includes the It remake that came out last month. You shouldn’t miss this, especially since it’s going to be streaming on Netflix right in time for Halloween.
On the spectrum of King adaptations, this expansion of the 131-page novella by the same name veers closer to things like Stand By Me or The Shawshank Redemption, though it does contain some supernatural elements, and it’s a moderately satisfying little film that’d work just a bit better with a few changes. High atop that list would be asking Thomas Jane to tone down his accent just a little bit- seriously, the dude sounds like Bane more than a Nebraska farmer, and you can barely understand what he’s saying between his clenched teeth. It’s an interesting choice, even if it totally doesn’t work, especially for a project as plain and straightforward as this is.
Jane plays Willard James, who, in the film’s framing device, is scribbling down his memoirs in a hotel as the rats descend in on him. Years before, he was a mild-mannered farmer with a wife who strives for more (Molly Parker) and a son who was content staying where he is and courting the neighbor girl. His wife recently came into some land via an inheritance, and James has dreams of keeping it and to establish a homestead for generations to come. She wants to sell it, divorce her husband, and move to Omaha with her son to open a dress shop, and Wilfred can’t abide that, especially because of who she wants to sell it to- a faceless corporation that plans on transforming his land into a factory. So he begins working his son, manipulating him into going along with a plan he has, using all the tricks in his arsenal to convince him that murder’s the only way that they’ll be able to keep the farm.
Some hours later, the two have dropped her body into an unfilled well on the property, and it looks like that’ll be that. The local sheriff buys their story that she ditched out in the dead of night with her best clothes and a few treasured items, and the matter seems settled. Of course, you’d be wrong to think that, given how things normally go in these movies — crime doesn’t pay and the guilt’ll only kill you — and it’s only a short time before James starts seeing his wife’s corpse in the night and finds rats with a taste for flesh storming throughout his house and barn. He and his son butt heads as well, drawing them both towards sad conclusions. There’s an interesting throughline of male cruelty and control passed down between generations, but it’s only hinted at.
1922 is largely empty of the kind of thrills or scared you’d expect from a work like this, and much of its horror is lost on people who think rats make pretty good little pets. This wouldn’t be a huge issue if we were dealing with top-tier King and the kind of characters that populate those works, but what’s there is buried behind Jane and an understaffed cast full of normally interesting faces (like Neal McDonough amongst others) who largely keep quiet. Jane’s performance beers constantly from truthful and insightful, like in the many scenes he shares with his son, to downright fucking silly, as he is when the company man shows up looking for his wife to finish sealing the deal. It’s a quiet and somewhat empty work by director Zak Hilditch, though there is a lot of potential here for his future work. The cinematography is plain enough, owing much to depression-era photography as it does anything contemporary, but it comes off largely as lifeless. The hook, for many, will be there, but it’s not that interested in reeling you in.