GERALD’S GAME (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: Mike Flanagan

Written by: Jeff Howard & Mike Flanagan

(based on the novel GERALD’S GAME by Stephen King)

Starring: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Chiara Aurelia, Carel Struycken, Henry Thomas & Kate Siegel

Director Mike Flanagan has quickly been carving out quite the career in the horror genre. Flanagan’s track record hasn’t been spotless (BEFORE I WAKE was shelved for good reason), but the man has delivered a tense home-invasion thriller (HUSH), a supernatural/psychological scarefest (OCULUS), and even made a OUIJA prequel into a loving throwback to 70s satanic panic flicks (OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL). Flanagan’s success has now led to the completion of a project that he’s been wanting to make since he was a teenager: an adaptation of Stephen King’s supposedly unfilmable novel GERALD’S GAME. Despite a set up that sounds like it could potentially get boring fast, 2017’s GERALD’S GAME (the third King adaptation in the space of this year) is a tense, dark, and gripping ride.

Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) are a troubled couple trying to save their failing marriage. The dysfunctional pair set out for a romantic weekend at a cabin in the middle of nowhere. Gerald reveals that he brought two “real deal” handcuffs with him and chains Jessie to the bed to play a kinky sex game. However, things go horribly wrong when Gerald drops dead of a heart attack and leaves a mortified Jessie handcuffed to the headboard. As hours tick away, Jessie finds herself trapped in a seemingly inescapable situation and facing a hungry dog that begins chowing down on her husband’s corpse. If she wishes to survive, Jessie must use all of her energy to think outside of the box and confront past demons that plague her memories.

GERALD’S GAME sounds like it could potentially be a rather boring movie, because (after all) we’re watching a woman who’s handcuffed to a bed for nearly the entire film. However, Flanagan plays with narrative tricks to keep things interesting the whole way through. As Jessie’s body begins to suffer from dehydration and insurmountable stress piles up on her psyche, she begins to hallucinate. These hallucinations include an alternate all-knowing version of Gerald and herself that give pieces of advice. This was a brilliant way of showing how Jessie’s thought process was functioning, as opposed to a simple voiceover or tedious silence.

There are also childhood flashbacks that are masterfully interweaved as we get more character development behind Jessie. These flashbacks don’t necessarily feel like cheap sequences of sloppy exposition either, because Flanagan weaves our adult protagonist into them in clever ways. One scene features a very creepy Henry Thomas (as Jessie’s abusive father) talking to the Jessie and some creative editing intercuts her adult self in place of her younger self. Touches like these show that Flanagan does indeed know how to make seemingly doomed projects (this novel was considered unfilmable for over two decades) into compelling cinematic experiences.

The cast is relatively small, given the premise, but these actors do an excellent job of drawing us in. Carla Gugino portrays her growing desperation in ways that have the viewer constantly on edge, while also interacting with herself and hallucinations in a convincing manner. These were not easy accomplishments and Gugino knocks it out of the park in her role! Bruce Greenwood is scummy as pompous lawyer/husband Gerald, but also gets to come off as more likable in Jessie’s imagined version of her recently deceased husband. There’s also the “Moonlight Man” (called the “Space Cowboy” in the novel) and the less I say about him, the better. He makes for a few very creepy scenes though.

GERALD’S GAME fumbles a bit during its final 15 minutes, which heavily rely on a cheesy use of voiceover that the rest of the film never lowered itself to. To be fair to the film’s finale, King’s book also concluded in a mishmash of messy plot revelations and felt out-of-place. The ending of GERALD’S GAME is easily its weakest point, but that doesn’t necessarily lessen of the well-built suspense and disturbing imagery that came before it. There’s one squirm-inducing sequence that’s pretty much guaranteed to elicit vocal reactions and winces from viewers. It’s probably the most disturbing movie moment of 2017 so far…at least, it is for me.

Though it stumbles during its finale, GERALD’S GAME is a tense, suspenseful, and appropriately horrific adaptation of one of King’s more polarizing novels. Mike Flanagan keeps things visually interesting and emotionally engaging, while Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood nail their performances. This is a different kind of horror story, but remains a horror story nonetheless that’s grounded in reality. GERALD’S GAME may also give viewers a newfound phobia of handcuffs!

Grade: B+

BEFORE I WAKE (2018)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Violent Content and Terror including Disturbing Images

Directed by: Mike Flanagan

Written by: Mike Flanagan & Jeff Howard

Starring: Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane, Jacob Tremblay, Topher Bousquet, Annabeth Gish, Dash Mihok, Scottie Thompson & Justin Gordon

Mike Flanagan has quickly established himself as a rising talent in the horror genre. He’s made waves with ABSENTIA, OCULUS, HUSH, and the far-better-than-expected OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL. In spite of his many accomplishments (ranging from impressive to miracle-working), one of Flanagan’s movies has been frequently delayed in its journey to theaters and is currently gathering dust on a studio’s shelf. Suffering multiple release date changes before being delayed indefinitely, BEFORE I WAKE is a horror-fantasy that has seemingly been released everywhere but the USA. I had to import a copy from Canada to write this review. So, is this film worth the wait or is there a clear reason why the studio is holding off on releasing it? The answer to this question, like the film itself, is a bit of a mixed bag.

Jessie (Kate Bosworth) and Mark (Thomas Jane) are grieving parents who wish to move on by adopting a foster child. This lucky kid is Cody (Jacob Tremblay), an eight-year-old boy who’s been dealt plenty of short straws in life. The new parents take an instant liking to this well-behaved youngster, but it turns out that Cody comes with some baggage. While Cody sleeps, his dreams physically manifest around him. This seems wonderful at first with beautiful butterflies and the couple’s deceased son returning for a bit of unexpected therapy. However, this gift also has a dark side as it turns out that Cody’s nightmares are potentially deadly. Jessie and Mark must figure out how to put a stop to Cody’s bad dreams before they wind up killed or eaten.

BEFORE I WAKE has an undeniably cool premise that is aching for imaginative visuals and (literal) nightmarish imagery. However, this story takes a long while to get going. This has been billed as a straight-up scarefest (much like Flanagan’s other efforts), but that’s not necessarily the case. BEFORE I WAKE feels like a Guillermo Del Toro produced fantasy-horror flick rather than an all-out horror movie. Almost 45 minutes pass before the film’s momentum really gets moving and that feels like far too long of a wait, even though this time is dedicated to developing characters. I rarely complain about this in my reviews, but this story had way too much character development. Scenes of exposition and family bonding detract from the film’s main dream/nightmare plot.

After nearly half the running time has passed, the film finally starts moving at a brisk pace and employing a few neat twists along the way. The nightmarish visuals are appropriately creepy and I really dug the design of a skeletal boogeyman nicknamed “The Canker Man.” BEFORE I WAKE also took a few ballsy turns before diving into an appropriately fantastical third act. One of these scenes is so unexpected that Flanagan deserves serious props for drastically shifting off the beaten path and then not taking an easy way out on this plot point. The beautiful imagery is cool to look at, while the darker moments appropriately seem to be yanked right out of a child’s nightmares.

The best performance of the film belongs to Thomas Jane as new father Mark. He comes off as a likable, down-to-earth guy and I was rooting for him to survive this dream-logic fueled plot. Meanwhile, Kate Bosworth is a deliberately flawed character and this comes into the play throughout the story. Bosworth tries her best to make Jessie worth rooting for and this mostly pays off by the end of the film. However, the viewer may find themselves really struggling to like her during the first two-thirds of the running time. Jacob Tremblay (who delivered some of the best child acting ever in ROOM) is solid enough as innocent, unintentionally dangerous Cody.

As I mentioned before, BEFORE I WAKE is more of a dark fantasy than it is a flat-out horror flick. It will constantly be labeled under the latter genre because of its director and the nightmarish imagery. However, this film really pays off on its grim fairy tale vibe with a hugely satisfying conclusion. The first half of this script uses blatantly annoying foreshadowing in conversations between characters, but the final pay-off remains great. I thoroughly loved this movie’s ending. It takes things out on a high-note and there’s something to be said for just how smart the writing is during the film’s final minutes.

BEFORE I WAKE has likely been shelved because the story takes a bit too long to get going and it’s more of a fantasy than the horror flick that’s already been sold to the public. The film has problems in its muddled pacing during the first half, suffers from obvious foreshadowing early on, and Kate Bosworth’s character is downright unlikable for a solid chunk of the film. When this movie fully takes off halfway through, it’s a major step-up in quality and imagination. There are lots of neat images throughout the nightmare sequences that will surely please horror fans and the final third is pretty great. Temper your expectations when this one eventually hits US shores and you’ll likely enjoy it for the decent horror-fantasy that it is.

Grade: B-

OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 39 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Disturbing Images, Terror and Thematic Elements

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Directed by: Mike Flanagan

Written by: Mike Flanagan & Jeff Howard

Starring: Elizabeth Reaser, Annalise Basso, Lulu Wilson, Henry Thomas & Parker Mack

I had no initial interest in reviewing OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL. This was partially because I’ve never bothered watching 2014’s OUIJA (which looked terrible) and partially because this film looked like an equally bad cash-in to that film (despite talented Mike Flanagan being attached to it). When a long-time fan of this blog contacted me last October and asked me to review it because he was shocked at how good it was, I decided that I would eventually give it a go. It turns out that OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL is quite good. This horror flick isn’t going to blow anyone’s mind, but it’s far better than it probably has any right to be. If you’re looking for a nifty little throwback to 70’s supernatural horror, then OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL should satisfy your cinematic craving.

OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL, Lulu Wilson, 2016. © Universal Pictures

The year is 1967 and the place is Los Angeles, California. Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) is a struggling widow who’s trying to keep her house afloat and take care of her two daughters, teenage Lina (Annalise Basso) and 9-year-old Doris (Lulu Wilson). Alice barely makes ends meet by passing herself off as a psychic and performing phony séances for gullible folks with lots of money. Her scam is beginning to dry up, but Alice attempts to inject new life into it by bringing a Ouija board into the fake ceremonies. The Ouija board actually seems to have a connection to the spirit world, which at first seems fantastic…and then takes a dark turn when creepy Doris begins to exhibit signs of possession. Supernatural shit soon hits the fan!

OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL, from left: Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson, Henry Thomas, 2016. ph: Justin

OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL kicks things off to a good start with an old-school Universal logo and retro-styled credits. This film feels like it’s straight out of the 70’s heyday of satanic panic flicks, complete with cigarette burns in the upper right-hand corner and a soundtrack that fits the time period. Besides covering the superficial aspects of an older horror film, OUIJA also nails a less-is-more slow-burn approach for the first two-thirds of its perfectly paced 99-minute running time. There are conversations that evoke spookiness purely through lines of dialogue and little details in the background evoke more chills than any pop-up scares ever could.

OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL, from left: Lulu Wilson, Henry Thomas, 2016. © Universal Pictures

Speaking of which, OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL isn’t immune from typical CGI jump scares that modern horror seems to be riddled with, but this prequel uses them sparingly. The cheesy CGI mainly arrives in the final third when the story throws everything at the wall to see what sticks. This being said, there is one hell of an effective scare that made me jump about a foot in the air. Props to Mike Flanagan for continuing to prove why he’s a rising talent in the world of horror. This single moment reminded me of the more effective bits in 2014’s OCULUS. Not everything works though, because a glowing-eyed demon is very cheesy. The same can be said about some laughable mouth-stretching and wall-crawling possession hijinks.

OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL, from left: Annalise Basso, Lulu Wilson, 2016. © Universal Pictures /Courtesy

One thing that I did not expect OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL to do was to build strong characters, but it pulled off this feat rather well. There are scenes specifically geared towards the family dynamic and developing this spooky story’s main players. Elizabeth Reaser is convincing as a tired single mother trying to make things work…and ultimately inviting supernatural shit into her home. Annalise Basso (who also appeared in Flanagan’s OCULUS) is well cast as difficult teenage daughter/loving sister Lina. Lulu Wilson is appropriately eerie as Doris, saying disturbing lines of dialogue in a cutesy innocent way that makes them come off as even more disturbing. These three performers and the chemistry between them are a main driving force in this movie. It only sweetens the deal that Henry Rollins plays a concerned priest who has taken a shine to the troubled family.

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OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL isn’t the best horror film from 2016 or the scariest supernatural flick in years, but it’s far better than it has any right to be. This prequel (to a teeny-bopper cash-grab) actually managed to be competently made, well-written and packed in a few effective scares to boot. The retro vibe is sure to please fans of old-school supernatural horror and the slow-burn of the first two acts allows a spooky atmosphere to build. Though it does have some cheesy CGI scares and a needless end credits scene to hint towards the possibilities of a OUIJA 3, OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL is a surprisingly solid horror flick! If you’re in the mood for a good demonic possession movie or atmospheric ghost fare, then you’ll likely enjoy OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL!

Grade: B

HUSH (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence/Terror and some Language

Hush poster

Directed by: Mike Flanagan

Written by: Mike Flanagan & Kate Siegel

Starring: Kate Siegel, John Gallagher Jr., Michael Trucco, Samantha Sloyan & Emilia Graves

The home invasion film is among the scariest of the horror subgenres. Our homes grant us safety and peace from the outside world, which makes it all the more terrifying when we see that safety shattered in horrifying (often bloody) way. That being said, there are only so many ways that a home invasion film can play out. You only have three basic scenarios to choose from: extended game of cat-and-mouse, elongated hostage situation, or combination of the two. HUSH, directed by horror filmmaker Mike Flanagan (OCULUS, ABSENTIA), opts for the third choice. Though it repeats familiar beats and isn’t free of clichés, HUSH works because of clever stylistic choices and a smart protagonist who the viewer can comfortably root for.

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Maddie is a deaf-mute living in an isolated cottage. She survives on money from her novels and is frequently stressed out by her “writer’s brain” (she’s able to imagine and analyze many possible scenarios at once). Her writer’s brain will come in handy tonight though, because a bloodthirsty killer is slashing his way through the woods. The psycho sets his sights on Maddie and quickly realizes that she’s potentially easy prey. Unable to hear or speak, Maddie has become an interesting new victim for this killer and he intends to viciously toy with her before entering the house. However, Maddie isn’t going down without a fight. A bloody game of cat-and-mouse ensues.

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HUSH uses a lot of cool stylistic choices in its storytelling, which transforms the slightly familiar set-up into something fresh and fun. Since Maddie is deaf, Flanagan constantly utilizes silence and muffled sounds to increase the tension. He also gives us a couple of windows into her “writer’s brain” and delivers particularly solid scares in those moments. The film’s ever-changing sound design helps keep the viewer on edge and makes everything scarier as we are frequently put into Maddie’s silent state. However, this isn’t to say that Maddie isn’t resourceful as hell, because she’s a great horror movie heroine.

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Unlike other recent horror flicks that have suffered from bland/stupid characters (cough, GREEN ROOM, cough), HUSH sports a clever protagonist. Kate Siegel’s Maddie doesn’t do anything stupid if she can help it and actually uses clever strategies against the killer. The ways in which she compensates for being deaf in seemingly unwinnable scenes are downright brilliant. Facing off against Maddie is John Gallagher Jr. as the masked killer. Though I wish his mask had remained on a tad longer, his utter delight in toying with Maddie is chilling to watch. He delivers multiple “oh shit!” moments as a steady stream of violence is unleashed onto Maddie, himself, and anybody unfortunate enough to be passing by.

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That’s not to say that HUSH is perfect and wholly original though, because the script occasionally falls victim to well-trodden formula clichés. Even with an 81-minute running time, the film comes close to wearing out its welcome. Some foreshadowing is a bit too obvious as items around the house become potential weapons later on and one CGI blood effect looks terrible (is it really so hard to get a hose and some fake blood?). Flanagan’s stylistic choices, bits of brutal violence (including one cringe-worthy gore gag), and steady suspense more than make up for HUSH’s flaws though.

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HUSH is basically one intense cat-and-mouse scene and happens to be very well-executed for the most part. The acting from co-writer Kate Siegel is solid and her character serves as a unique horror heroine. John Gallagher Jr. is fantastic as the psycho killer who relishes in the moments before the kill. The film is also violent, suspenseful, and has neat quirks that set it apart from other home invasion films. It’s not free of clichés, does have one cheesy special effect, and comes close to overstaying its welcome, but I walked away very satisfied with HUSH. Mike Flanagan has stated that this film was “practice” for his upcoming adaptation of Stephen King’s GERALD’S GAME. Judging from HUSH, I’d say that he’ll likely do a stellar job with the seemingly unfilmable material. As a whole, HUSH is a solid home invasion flick that should satisfy horror fans!

Grade: B

OCULUS (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Terror, Violence, some Disturbing Images and brief Language

Oculus poster

Directed by: Mike Flanagan

Written by: Jeff Howard

Starring: Katee Sackhoff, Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Rory Cochrane, James Lafferty, Annalise Basso & Garrett Ryan

In 2011, Mike Flanagan made big waves on the horror circuit with a low-budget effort titled ABSENTIA. The film definitely had some problems found in silly effects, iffy acting, and a significantly flawed execution, but it did contain lots of spooky atmosphere. Flanagan returned to make even more waves at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival with his latest scary story, OCULUS, which has hit theaters nationwide. Some of the problems found in his previous film still linger here (though significantly less bothersome), but Flanagan ups the ante all around with this freaky tale of a cursed mirror and a pact between two siblings to destroy it at all costs.

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Something terrible happened to Tim and Kaylie Russell as children. Police didn’t believe their delusions about a cursed mirror and ghostly figures with glowing eyes, so Katie landed in foster care, Tim was shipped off to a psychiatric hospital, and their parents are dead. Years have passed and Tim is released from the hospital, believing it all to be in his head. His sister, Kaylie, is still convinced that the antique mirror is responsible for their screwed up childhood and has acquired it to prove so. Taking precautions and setting up surveillance equipment, the siblings return to their old house to destroy the evil object. It’s not as simple as just smashing the mirror though, because the glass has a way of manipulating those around it. It causes elaborate hallucinations that could easily drive a person crazy. As Kaylie’s plan to destroy the mirror begins to encounter many difficulties, the siblings relive the horror of that night along with questioning what is really around them and what is fabricated by the mirror.

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OCULUS is a good old-fashioned horror film. It doesn’t rely on gratuitous sex, a high body count, or over-the-top gore (though there are some bloody moments). Flanagan focuses on telling a freaky story and creeping the viewer out. He does this very well. The storytelling technique blends the past and present together. Both the current events and the previous tragedy are told simultaneously, crashing into each other with increasing unease. There are clear flashbacks, but also other scenes where it’s hard to tell if the sibling is hallucinating/reliving their memories or if it’s just a cut and dry flashback. This approach was a nothing short of brilliant and it keeps the viewer engaged with the dual plot-threads. The script itself kept me wondering where the film was going to go next, but not due to boredom. Instead, I was wondering what was going to build on what I had already seen, suffice to say that the story itself didn’t disappoint.

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The acting varies from both sets of cast members playing the siblings in different time periods. I actually found the younger child performers, of whom much of the film hinges on, to be more convincing than the seasoned ones. That’s not a huge complaint in regards to Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites as the siblings in the present time period, but it took me a while to buy into them as these characters. Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan, the latter of whom actually played Young Josh in INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2, steal the show. Besides Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane as their parents, there aren’t a whole lot of other actors involved that play a big part in the story. It’s mainly about the breaking of a once-happy family and the siblings trying to get revenge on the evil that tore them apart.

M48 Katie Sackhoff stars in Relativity Media's OCULUS. Photo Credit: John Estes ©2013 Lasser Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

As far as the effects themselves go, there are some clear budget constraints. Most of the film does take place in the house (be it past or present), but ghostly specters of the mirror’s previous victims appear here and there. I dug the looks of some of them. Other times, things looked a tad corny. Seeing as Flanagan had 5 million (which is significantly higher than the 70 grand that he made ABSENTIA on), there’s not really an excuse for this. It’s not a film that relies heavily on effects, but they are employed throughout when necessary.

M174 Garrett Ryan (left) and Annalise Basso (right) star in Relativity Media's OCULUS. Photo Credit: John Estes ©2013 Lasser Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The film is professionally constructed in most ways, it looks great (save for some questionable effects work) and the storytelling is phenomenal (save for some so-so acting near the beginning). A big complaint I have to level at OCULUS involves the fact that I never once jumped out of my seat and I could call when certain pop-up scares were going to happen. It’s a creepy movie, but not necessarily a frightening one. It’s the kind of scary movie you might show to non-horror fans in order to terrify them, while you enjoy laughing at their screams and watching a pretty kick-ass story unfold in a mostly unconventional way. The ending is also a real doozy. I called it about a minute before it happened, but I was highly satisfied with how things turned out.

M121 Karen Gillian and Brenton Thwaites star in Relativity Media's OCULUS. Photo Credit: John Estes ©2013 Lasser Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

OCULUS does have some cracks in it, but is well worth looking into for those wanting a well-crafted horror film. The story rocks in the way it’s told. The more than capable child performers are arguably a huge part of what keeps things working as well as they do. I wasn’t necessarily out-and-out scared by OCULUS, but it did creep me out significantly. There was an eerie feeling that stuck as I walked to my car in the night, followed me as I drove home, and is currently hovering over me as I type this review. OCULUS winds up being well worth a watch and also might be one of the better horror films to come out this year! A solid horror film about a killer mirror? Who knew it could be done?

Grade: B+

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