I don’t think anyone who read Stephen King regularly in the 80s and 90s, when his fame and popularity were arguably at their peak and nearly everything he published was being adapted to the screen, ever wondered why no one had made a movie of Gerald’s Game yet. I don’t say that because I consider the novel “unfilmable,” which is a label that has been retroactively applied to it now that it’s been filmed, the context being “Oh I guess it wasn’t unfilmable!” I say that because I think most people would have agreed that a movie of Gerald’s Game probably wouldn’t make any money. One of King’s shortest novels, it’s about a woman named Jesse Burlingame who travels with her husband Gerald to a remote cabin for a secluded vacation, one of the aims being to put some spice back into their marriage. Gerald has expressed interest in handcuffing Jesse; Jesse has agreed with a mixture of openness and reluctance. Once this game begins, it soon turns too weird for Jesse, who wants to stop, but Gerald presses on. She kicks him away (in the balls, I think), he has a heart attack, and dies on the floor at the foot of the bed. Jesse, topless, is still handcuffed, and they’re not gag cuffs – they’re the real thing.
So there’s the extensive nudity, which most male readers, such as myself, probably assumed was completely unavoidable but which most actresses would reasonably balk at, and then there’s the fact that, while things sure do happen in Gerald’s Game, at least half of it would have to focus on a single person cuffed to a bed, struggling vainly to free herself. Entirely filmable, but maybe not a big draw for audiences.
Well, if memory serves, the novel was once in the hands of George Romero, who obviously never got it off the ground, but someone was thinking about it anyway, and now here it is, done, by Mike Flanagan. I really like everything I’ve seen from Flanagan, especially Oculus, and including Hush, his 2016 thriller that, like Gerald’s Game, premiered on Netflix. Jesse wears a slip the whole time, so there’s that problem solved.
Starring Carla Gugino as Jesse, Flanagan’s film finds very basic, very effective solutions to the “problems” inherent in turning this book into a movie (although let’s be honest: a film less worried about alienating audiences wouldn’t have needed these solutions). In addition to, you know, letting the lead actress wear clothes, Flanagan also keeps Bruce Greenwood, who plays Gerald, in the mix by having him appear to Jesse after her psyche begins to crack a little. He’s there represent the doubting, frightened side of Jesse whose inclination is, perhaps, to give up and die. That would certainly be easier. The Gerald part of her brain wants to encourage this. Flanagan also allows Gugino to get up and walk around by having her appear to herself, as her stronger, smarter side, who helps her physical self solve immediate problems, like where to find water. This is perhaps an obvious way to overcome certain cinematic obstacles, but they work, and they fit neatly with King’s feminist themes.
They also keep the film moving, and energized. Gugino and Greenwood are terrific, and though much of the film takes place in one room, Flanagan manages to make Jesse’s situation seem harrowing and terribly uncomfortable without making the film itself seem hemmed in. Gerald’s Game is given further room to expand by including flashbacks to Jesse’s childhood, to a day when her family was on vacation, and her father (Henry Thomas) molested her. This is a horrifying scene (it’s also the kind of thing that makes me feel bad for the actor playing the molester; this can’t have been fun for Thomas to play), and is the first strong evidence that Flanagan is going to adapt Gerald’s Game, goddamnit. This is underlined vigorously in a scene involving an attempt by Jesse to escape from her handcuffs, using a method that can only be described as painfully disgusting. I read Gerald’s Game when it came out in 1992 -- that’s twenty-five years ago -- yet I remember this scene from the book vividly (as I do the flashback with Jesse and her father). But reading it’s one thing; you don’t really expect to ever see it. Mike Flanagan’s previous films haven’t leaned very heavily on gore; even when he employs it, he’s used a light touch. This scene in Gerald’s Game is one of the ghastliest things I’ve ever witnessed in a film that didn’t involve actual animal slaughter.
The ending is a problem. I think it ends the same way the novel does, though for whatever reason that part of the novel is hazy to me now. Anyway, I can’t remember how it plays on the page, or what I thought of it at the time (also I was a teenager, so who gives a fuck what I thought of it). Tonally, though, it’s off – part of that is Gugino, who has always had a side to her performances that evokes a form of classic Hollywood acting – she’d have been at home making movies in the 1950s, and I have a feeling she knows that very well. But fundamentally, the idea for the ending is a bad one. A little bit of uncertainty never hurt anyone.
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I’ve been wanting to see Tibor Takacs’s I, Madman since I was a kid and I saw the VHS cover featuring a bizarre black-clad, pale-faced, masked figure looming over Jenny Wright who was just trying to read a book, for God’s sake. I was struck by the title (I didn’t yet know that the “I-comma-something” construction was a cliché), and by Jenny Wright, let’s be honest, but mostly by the apparent murderer. His particular type of sinister visual design struck a chord that I can’t break down, but I find it compelling.
In the film, Randall William Cook, the actor in question, plays two characters, one, Dr. Kessler, only very briefly, in the story-within-a-story opening. But in that case, the design looks deliberately Nosferatu-esque (honestly he looks more like Willem Dafoe as Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire). This is fitting, as I, Madman very consciously wants to play off thrillers of the past; Hitchcock is evoked very blatantly (so is DePalma, less blatantly, but the acting class that Jenny Wright attends reminded me of a similar scene in Body Double, and one of her classmates looks like Ken Lockman in Dressed to Kill), as are non-cinematic horrors, like the pulp fiction Wright’s Virginia reads. The plot actually revolves around books: Virginia is an aspiring actress in L.A. who works in a used book store. She loves a book called Much of Madness, More of Sin by an old pulp writer named Malcolm Brand. He wrote one other novel called I, Madman, which comes into Virginia’s possession under mysterious circumstances. As she reads it, the killer in that novel – who removes parts of his victim to replace missing parts of his own head and face – apparently appears in the real world, committing similar crimes. The victims are people Virginia knows.
And it’s a fun time at the pictures, although I wish the plot I described above didn’t use as its basic structure that of a police investigation. Virginia’s boyfriend (Clayton Rohner) is the cop investigating these crimes, and for some reason Takacs and/or screenwriter David Chaskin decided that some amount of realism should probably be injected into this intentionally unrealistic horror film via this route, but all I could think was that time would be better spent with Virginia investigating this herself. And it’s not as though this idea actually achieves the apparent goal of grounding a film that shouldn’t be grounded in the first place (though there is one scene involving a police sketch artist that seems closer to the reality of that process that most such scenes); the most relatable thing about I, Madman is the bit about becoming obsessed by a writer who only wrote two books, and one of them is easy to find and the other is a giant pain in the ass.
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Yesterday I cracked open my copy of a horror anthology edited by Ellen Datlow called Nightmare Carnival, because who wouldn’t want to read stories from a book with that title this month? I only read one, as it turned out – I skipped directly to “Skullpocket” by Nathan Ballingrud. Ballingrud is the author of the novella The Visible Filth, which I haven’t read yet, and the story collection North American Lake Monsters, which I have, and which made my Best Books list a few years back. “Skullpocket” is quite different from the stories in that collection, which placed their horror, supernatural or not, within the recognizable lives of everyday men and women. By comparison, “Skullpocket” is a phantasmagoria of outsized creatures and images, and the horror is huge, immersive, and consuming.
The story is about three carnivals, and a man named Jonathan Wormcake. This man is a ghoul – an actual ghoul – who, when he was a boy, with other young ghouls on a trip aboveground, infiltrated a human carnival called the Cold Water Fair. This was in 1914, and something terrible happened there, something that led Jonathan Wormcake, as an adult, to take control of the town – unofficially, and benevolently, but unquestionably. All of this is either told to the reader or hinted at in flashback. The creature telling this story is Brain in a Jar 17, more familiarly known as Uncle Digby. He’s telling the story of the 1914 Cold Water Fair to a group of fourteen children who have been invited and compelled to Wormcake’s home for the Seventieth Annual Skullpocket Fair (these children were invited not by Wormcake, but by the Maggot). On this anniversary, the very old Jonathan Wormcake is expected to die, and so he is being attended to and interviewed by our narrator, a nameless priest in the Church of the Maggot. The priest found his calling after being one of the children invited by the Maggot to the First Annual Skullpocket Fair in 1944. It is this priest’s job to make sure that Jonathan Wormcake dies pure. What that means is eventually revealed. Also, “skullpocket” is a game that is played by ghouls, and which is also explained.
All of this, I imagine, makes “Skullpocket” sound almost like a work of whimsy, a fun-scary story, possibly for children. The veneer is intentional on Ballingrud’s part, possibly because children, and their excitement in the face of knowingly artificial horror, is central to what’s going on here. But “Skullpocket” is horrible, and horribly violent, in a very adult way. If the story is, in its way, about children, it is also about how adults look back on childhood, and children. In addition to the 1914 carnival, we’re also told about what happened at the 1944 Skullpocket Carnival, as a way of telling the reader what’s about to happen during this seventieth iteration. It’s beautifully structured, with 1914 and 1944 alternating information, and existing, in their telling, now, with Uncle Digby and the priest, and Jonathan Wormcake waiting to die.
The most fascinating thing about “Skullpocket,” though, as bleak and blood-spattered as it is, is how it is sort of an anti-Thomas Ligotti story. Ligotti, of course, writes from the point of view that all human life was a catastrophic mistake. The tragedy of at least two of the characters in “Skullpocket,” however, isn’t that they were born, but that by the end they know that the nihilism on which they’ve based their lives is no longer supportable. This is a hard and terrible world, but it’s only terrible because we know it’s good. This is the basis of the horror in “Skullpocket.”