(Warning: SPOILERS.)

First: I shd note immediately that I’ve read no Stephen King and only fully watched a few of the films (Carrie of course and lol The Shining; several more half-watched at best). My perhaps ill-informed nugget of knowledge is that he returns, over and over, to the notion that some cartoon monsters are also extremely real and here’s how. In that sense, Gerald’s Game is a very King project, exploring a potentially interesting extra twist. Except sadly the book it’s based on is one most King fans dislike and many never finished.

GeraldsGameartFirst things first: While the initial set-up was nicely fashioned — a sense of place and context, a sense of unease — the main characters we immediately meet, the primary couple, Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), weren’t really people I took much pleasure in spending time with. They are spending a weekend in the woods to rekindle their failing marriage, via the questionable medium Gerald’s BDSM games — which Jessie immediately reacts against and wants out of.

The story moves away from the initial-setup when Gerald (a) won’t let her out of the handcuffs despite her demurral and (b) then drops dead of a viagra-induced heart attack. Sadly (for me if not for the unfolding tale) death is not at all the end for this character, who hangs around as a dickish nagging & negging ghost and/or voice in Jessie’s head at least two thirds of the picture.

I’ve liked both these actors in other projects, so it’s not that. It’s the characters — they’re underwritten, plus what passes for development or evolution in the case of one of them. The reason they dislike each other, however, is that they are both dislikable. This basic issue is not really addressed or resolved. They’re vain and shallow and not emotionally aware at the outset: and actually there’s no evidence they change particularly (even tho during the course of the film Jessie is forced to learn or remember a lot about herself and what happened to her in the past). Actually the single character I much warmed to in the entire film was the spooky, hungry dog — who now arrives to chaw down on Gerald’s prone body. Handcuffed and trapped, Jessie knows she’s next dot dot dot…

Jessie’s flashbackstory (esp. as explanation of her character) was I felt glib and simplistic (“people are always entertaining company unless something terrible has happened to them”: yeah, no): the “terrible something” being child abuse (= jessie’s dad masturbating as she sat on his knee during an eclipse long ago). It’s set in a stylised colourscape of her not-fully-recovered memory, and the stylisation (‘is this a flashback or a dream? is the narrative unreliable?”) is uninteresting and a bit half-hearted. (sun-cast shadows out of sync with the sun, for example you felt because no one had noticed — and if deliberate, tepidly realised and never followed through). It all feels a bit helicoptered in and thoughtless to be honest.

It probably didn’t help that her dad is played by an all-growed-up elliott from ET (= henry thomas), eliciting a barrage of “i knew he’d grow up like this” jokes from my particular watching crew — bcz keeping secrets was a key part of that film’s story as well as the underfelt of this one :(

ghost-dogOn the whole I quite enjoyed (technically speaking) the early swerves between distinct types of micro-genre in the first half and more — the almost-erotic psycho-sexual thriller, the getting-out-of-a-predicament thriller, the classic supernatural-something-in-the-woods thriller, the dark-monsters-of-yr-mind thriller… This slippery mash-up wasn’t undertaken as the kind of pastiche or meta-exercise many more committed horror stans than me have come to dislike (I probably wouldn’t mind it: pomo 4evah and to the extreme dudes), but rather as the framing and the telling of the story right here before us. Meaning that the lurking monsters for jessie are simultaneously what happened to her long ago, the ghouls of her frightened mind in night watches during an ordeal she is unlikely to survive, and (here welcome the Moonlight Man, the terrifying figure she glimpses in the shadows as she is still handcuffed to her bed), well, sometimes monsters are after all real in a very literal sense. Though by the time we arrived at the last I was no longer enjoying the swerves — it felt like the vehicle had left the road and was hurtling across a field of corncobs towards a giant whoopee cushion.

Some of the film’s tension came from the fact that any one of these strands at any moment could turn unwatchably nasty — that someone bodied and of this world could discover her and well, do whatever they chose to her. And while the implied politics of this aren’t exactly worse than any number trashy Italian slash’n’gore cheapies I’d watch with much less reservation, here something about the glibness of the backstory combined with the low-key small-story naturalism of the very opening scene (spooky dog excepted) that nagged at me. I was suspending judgment to see where the film went with it many more committed horror stans have come to dislike it, and in the end my worst unease wasn’t justified. But — despite hanging over the entire film — it was also never really addressed or even much thought about. A slash’n’gore cheapie is what it is: it embodies but also describes certain fears and hatreds, and (part of) our response well be marking these in ourselves.

Gerald’s Game doesn’t seem to be set out to be a cheapie — the high-tone trappings of the opening (this couple is LOADED (they feed a dog kobe beef) combine with the careful look, at least at first, and of course the hints at S&M, to suggest this is a “sophisticated” film. And there’s nothing to say that a sophisticated-looking film can’t swerve into something very different (Kubrick’s version of the The Shining arguably does this). But movies that seem to be claiming they’re a lot smarter than they actually are generally rile me — it’s actually my (kobe) beef against a lot too much of Kubrick. And while there’s definitely a cleverness here to the way our our anticipations are constantly end-run, there’s very little sense that the genre-feel after a swerve is in any sense illuminating what came before.

Obviously if judgment is being suspended by viewers, they’re creating tension! And that’s the job of a horror movie, so full marks — it did its immediate thrills and surprises well, and there weren’t many points where I was “ugh I knew that was going to happen, it was signalled miles out.” But I wish the particular suspense I’d created for myself — the worry it was going to turn in a particular, unpalatable direction, which in the end it never did — didn’t feel so much as if the makers weren’t even aware of it.

psycho mummyIn the event, it actually swerved towards something unwatchably horrible in a completely different sense. A sense that left you — doubless somewhat self-protectively— laughing instead of cringing or jumping.

… and unfortunately from then on the film hurtled in three directions at once towards its conclusion, unfolding its tale in linear time alongside two faintly absurd parallel narrative devices, the prissy-apology-letter-to-the-past-self and the Explanatory Epilogue. Which you used to see a lot in cinema — Psycho has a tremendously ridiculous one — and never do any more, with very good reason.

It has to be said that — along the way — there’ve been a number of small but elegant conceits: and right at the end there’s a final one, a reversal, when the words of Jessie’s desperate shout against the darkness are turned back on her. The spirit of the reversal isn’t very clear, but it works all the same, oddly humanising the person before her — as if, mirror-fashion, she had also been a strange haunting dream-figure for him in their encounters.

But this nice idea accompanies the swerve that doesn’t work: the Moonlight Man wasn’t a trick of the light flowing into the darknesses in Jessie’s mind — but an actual real necrophiliac home invader, basically an acromegalous Ed Gein-alike lurking in the shadows of her room. We get a newspaper montage of his career of crimes and then a trial — which Jessie attends, to confront him. The device is clumsy, the make-up clumsier — he mostly looks like an alien in a 60s Star Trek — and the effect, of course, is to attach the cartoon nightmare to two entirely unrelated reals in succession, the suppressions and harms of her backstory and the terrors and harms of her ordeal in handcuffs, while handwaving at a third set unconnected to her (Moonlight Man’s depredations, which we’re given neither the time nor the set-up to have feelings about). Everything starts getting in the way of everything else — which in particular seems further to cheapen jessie’s traumas as a child.

hamlet-dadghostA couple of times in the M. R. James stories someone half-quotes the line from Hamlet about more things in heaven or earth than dremt of in your philosophy blah blah. In James it’s deployed as a clichéd truism (reflecting on the unrefined intellect of the speaker) as well as a proposed fact about the world; a base-level refinement of the modern ghost story (Hamlet is a not-quite-modern ghost story). After James it becomes something larger, at once more ridiculous and (potentially) more frightening: what you might (assuming yr a damaged idiot like me) call the ontologico-Lovecraftian cosmology is a claim that horror stories and films are making about the real world, that goes beyond horror-as-analogy and the story unleashing the dark-in-the-supernatural as a figure for the non-supernatural darkness of human life. More things in heaven or earth: and they’re active and they have mind and power and we don’t remotely understand them and they don’t give a fuck about humanity, except as prey or the worst kind of hard play.

The hysteria and just the sheer tiresome badness of Lovecraft’s written style is what you might term an unrefined manifestation of the inability to frame what it’s confronting. As noted, I’ve read no Stephen King — I can’t report on how he handles the intricacies of this at the level of the sentence and of style-as-metaphor. I can report — indeed repeat — that the film Gerald’s Game’s signature move is the swerve, and that, if it dabs at any of the above en twisty route, the clumsily managed buffoon realism it arrives at (the “monster” is human but deformed; the deformation has turned him into an actual real monster = a necrophiliac stalker-cannibal murderer) effectively shakes off any of this modern-traditional freight of dread-as-humility.

Obviously the world is full of all kinds of trauma — this aspect of the film isn’t even unrealistic — and people very much do have to find ways to negotiate them in multiple form. But the only mythology or structure this film doesn’t torque away from, as to the useful shape of such negotiation, is the “truth-telling adult apology to the younger self” — and this isn’t as far as it ought to be from some extremely real monsters are nothing but cartoons, and one day you’ll just look back at all this and chuckle