Gerald’s Game bleeds its confined premise for surreal, muted terror

All in all, bed may be the place where the average human accumulates the most terror over the course of their life. It’s where monsters are most capable of getting us when we are kids. Its where we notice changes in our own bodies, and where we awkwardly learn about the bodies of others. Its where we get left to ourselves to stare at the ceiling and replay all our failures, consider all our dreads. But most of all, its where we sleep and where we are vulnerable. It’s where we open our eyes after a bad dream only to find ourselves surrounded in darkness and, for a moment, are left with no guarantee of our safety.

Gerald’s Game, an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, makes expert use of these fears, and is considerably more gripping than its premise suggests. After her husband Gerald takes some role playing a bit too far and dies of a heart attack, Jessie finds herself handcuffed to a bed in a cottage far from home with no way to call for help. Rather quickly, things go south from there, but the film gets surreal as Jessie starts hallucinating. She dreams of past trauma, which comes off a bit stilted and melodramatic at first but pays off with an devastating bedside conversation. She conjures a shoulder angel and devil in the form of doppelgangers of her and Gerald. Some of her visions are much more directly horrifying, notably the bone-carrying Moonlight Man, but everything is played on a mute note, with nary a suddenly screeching violin to be found. It lets the terror settle in and burn into your brain, and when it does go for the jugular with a shockingly gruesome set piece, it was enough to have me biting into a pillow.

Carla Gugino carries the film, selling its quasi-self-actualization message, and Jessie as a character both comments on and dodges the woman-in-chains cliches that might be expected. As Gerald (and moreso as hallucination Gerald), Bruce Greenwood is hypnotic, creating chills through monologue and compellingly whispering about the motives of Death to a dehydrated and dazed Jessie. The movie even manages to capture a very King-like feeling, mixing the creeping supernatural-tinged dread with a complete, well-drawn character study. Unfortunately, the apparently epilogue is an absolute train wreck, but thankfully it is a true epilogue in that it comes after the conclusion of the main action. Gerald’s Game is excellent while it goes, and its high points are among the best of any King adaptation.

B+

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Gerald’s Game (2017)
Directed by Mike Flanagan
Starring Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood
Rotten Tomatoes (92%)
On Netflix

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Gerald’s Game bleeds its confined premise for surreal, muted terror

It clicks once It embraces the weirdness

Kids get scared of the most irrational things. Creepy basements, ugly paintings, black-and-white photographs, clowns. We form fewer irrational fears as adults, but when we re-encounter something that scared us as a kid, we often can’t help but get a little nervous (for what its worth, I still get anxious around aquariums and in the fish aisle of the supermarket). But the key to most of these fears is that they’re imaginary, that our mind outsizes them into terrifying monstrosities. Stephen King’s novel It may be about four hundred pages too long, but it taps into the reader’s imagination just enough to let it take some hints of fear and grow them into pure terror. The reliance on imagination presents a challenge for the film adaptations, where everything must be made literal, and the new It doesn’t always rise to the challenge. But it spins up some macabre fun along the way.

The first act of It mostly lives up to the worst expectations of a horror remake. The opening scene, where little Georgie meets a clown by a sewer grating, is shockingly brutal but inelegant, and that the goriness involves a small child is a bit much (indeed, a few people walked out immediately). Afterwards, as Our Gang of summer-lovin’ kids individually encounter all-to-real manifestation of their fears, It devolves into jump scares with little originality in terms of design (outside of a fantastically creepy painting come to life). However, once the gang comes together, starting by investigating a very clearly haunted house, It really finds its groove and becomes something like a Sam Raimi version of The Goonies.

Anchored by Bill Skarsgard’s performance as a Pennywise the Dancing Clown who indeed dances (and some mostly good CGI), the middle act presents a series of innovative grotesqueries that occasionally scare but consistently amuse. Not coincidentally, this point is also where class clown Richie Tozier (played by Stanger Thing’s Finn Wolfhard) suddenly clicks. Tozier is an annoyance in both the novel and the first movie, a character who is funny because the writer said so rather than actually being funny, but here Richie really works, in a natural, juvenile way. Once It starts having fun with the concept and lets loose, it becomes an absolute joy. And even though It makes no bones about it being the first chapter of a planned two-parter, the first film tells a complete tale and stands on its own as a bloody, R-rated version of Stand By Me.

B

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IT (2017)
Directed by Andy Muschietti
Starring Jaden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, and Bill Skarsgard
Rotten Tomatoes (85%)

It clicks once It embraces the weirdness

The Dark Tower is not good

Everyone who has ever loved fiction has had to deal with it at some point: their favourite fantasy world being called stupid. Those stupid little Ewoks. Those stupid trash-can aliens. That stupid little Dobby fellow. It can be infuriating to defend, because the most innovative and captivating fantasy doesn’t get there without risking being stupid. That edge between stupid and scary, or stupid and cool, or stupid and fascinating is often the richest spot for creators to work. So I’d take it with a grain of salt whenever someone dismisses a movie or game or book or what-have-you as “stupid”. In the opposite spirit, however, jesus christ is The Dark Tower ever stupid.

The Dark Tower, based on Stephen King’s seven-ish-book series, lasts the longest 95 minutes that have ever existed. That kind of run time might hint that the film cut a lot of the fat; instead, almost the whole movie is fat. The movie opens with text about how the tower protects us from evil and can be brought down by the mind of a child, then proceeds to provide seventy minutes of straight exposition without ever really elaborating on why that happens to be the case. The novels apparently play with the notion of a fictional universe, and link themselves to King’s other novels, to the point where King himself is a character. The movie, on the other hand, plays like something a thirteen-year-old put together for a particularly lazy creative writing project.

Which would be fine if it were a lick of fun, but golly is it a slog. Matthew McConaughey tries his best to chew the scenery, succeeding precisely once in what is the best scene of the movie (it involves him casually frying up some chicken), but the script can’t even give him good lines to ham up as a sadistic wizard (this really should have been a slam-dunk). The presence of a preteen lead threatens to give it a Narnia-style adventure feeling, but it never balances its moments of darkness with anything approaching wonderous. Idris Elba’s gunslinger is in concept a great character to base a pulpy movie around, and Elba is more than game, but the action scenes are shockingly unimpressive and cheap-looking.

The Dark Tower has been in some kind of development for over ten years, which has to indicate that somewhere down the line, someone loved this movie. The Dark Tower we finally got is not the product of love though. This is pure clock-punching from all involved, a soulless creation with no good reason to exist. If it were awful schlock, there’d be some fun to be had at its expense, but this is like if Microsft Excel decided to make a fantasy movie.

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F

The Dark Tower (2017)
Directed by Nikolaj Arcel
Starring Idris Elba, Tom Taylor, Claudia Kim, and Matthew McConaughey

Rotten Tomatoes (18%)

The Dark Tower is not good