You could call 2017 the year of Stephen King if Stephen King had ever really gone out of style. But it’s true: We’ve seen an abundance of King adaptations over the last several months, from forgettable trainwrecks like The Dark Tower in July to the record-breaking success of It just this month. Then there are the TV series — Spike’s The Mist and Audience’s Mr. Mercedes, as well as Hulu’s Castle Rock, which is currently filming.
With so much going on in the world of King, it’s easy to miss something — such as the two motion picture adaptations hitting Netflix this fall. Arriving on Netflix this Friday is Gerald’s Game, based on King’s 1992 novel, a psychosexual thriller about BDSM roleplay gone very wrong. Then there’s 1922, which debuts on Netflix on Oct. 20; it’s a nasty little horror story based on the novella from the 2010 collection Full Dark, No Stars. Both films had their pre-Netflix premieres at Fantastic Fest in Austin, prompting visceral reactions from King fans, along with well-earned sighs of relief.
In terms of source material, Gerald’s Game is certainly more well-known, but it’s still considered one of King’s lesser works. It’s also an incredibly tricky novel to adapt: The whole thing takes place in one room and in the memories and hallucinations of its protagonist, Jessie. Played in the film by Carla Gugino, Jessie finds herself handcuffed to a bed in a remote cabin when her husband, the titular Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), has a heart attack after trying to engage her in an aborted rape fantasy. As she struggles with dehydration and a very persistent dog, she begins seeing things, including visions of her own escape and flashbacks to her traumatic past. It’s essentially a kinky take on Cujo (King’s infamous rabid dog even gets name-checked). That Gerald’s Game hews close to the book and still manages to work so well is a credit to director Mike Flanagan, who cowrote the screenplay with Jeff Howard.
There is some streamlining, which is helpful. In the book, Jessie imagines several personas as she’s losing touch with reality; in the film, it’s all pretty much a debate between projections of herself (a healthier, less handcuffed-to-the-bed version) and Gerald (looking a little worse for wear now that the dog has been tearing at his corpse). Gugino and Greenwood are exceptional throughout — the former is especially good at playing both iterations of Jessie. But it’s not just the script and the performances that make Gerald’s Game so compelling; it’s that this is the kind of confined suburban horror that King does so well. Yes, there’s a boogeyman that Jessie may or may not be imagining — Twin Peaks’ Carel Struycken plays a bone-collecting giant lurking in the shadows — but Gerald’s Game is more about Jessie’s personal demons, the sexual abuse she suffered as a child, and her fears that Gerald, no matter how good he might have looked on paper, was just another monster.
King deserves a lot of credit for how deftly this story plays out, just as Flanagan should be praised for seamlessly translating it for the screen. There was a fine line to walk here, as Gerald’s Game moves from a darkly comedic nightmare to Jessie’s painful recollections of what her father (Henry Thomas) did to her. It’s here that Gerald’s Game becomes more Dolores Claiborne than Cujo — there’s also a very pointed reference to the former, as in the novel. And then the film arcs back again, as the deeply unpleasant flashbacks fade back into Jessie’s current predicament: It’s a careful balancing act. In the end, the real-life horror gives way to a scene of such heightened violence that the humor floods back in, along with a lot of screaming — from Jessie and the audience.
While Gerald’s Game is restrained by the nature of its story, it’s far from subtle; 1922, on the other hand, frequently holds back. It’s not exactly underplayed, but it’s slower and more deliberate, and while that pacing is sometimes questionable, which ultimately makes the film less successful than Netflix’s other King adaptation, the overall effect is a more grounded horror story that relies largely on dread. “This will not end well” is the subtext of every scene, made literal by the rats that won’t stop trailing Wilfred James (Thomas Jane).
Wilfred is not Jessie in Gerald’s Game — you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone rooting for him. He’s a selfish, petty farmer who decides his wife, Arlette (Molly Parker), is too controlling and convinces his young teenage son, Henry (Dylan Schmid), to help him murder her. Jane has done King before, in both good adaptations (the film version of The Mist) and bad (the largely reviled Dreamcatcher), but Wilfred is an especially tough nut to crack. There aren’t really any sympathetic characters in this story. Even Henry, though a clear victim of his father’s coercion, is still doomed from the start as a willing participant in matricide.
And so what we’re left with is a story that’s, again, classic King: Nothing buried ever stays buried. The question isn’t if Wilfred will get his comeuppance but how. And as things go from bad to worse in mundane but no less gutting ways, the story takes a supernatural slant. Arlette refuses to stay dead, stalking Wilfred through his empty farmhouse, and the rats who desecrated her corpse are always trailing behind. Whether it’s all in Wilfred’s head or not is sort of beside the point — he’s haunted all the same.
Writer-director Zak Hilditch creates some truly stunning visuals, as well as some deeply distressing ones. (Anyone with even the slightest aversion to rodents should steer clear.) He also knows when to hold back: While Gerald’s Game climaxes in an outrageously brutal act of violence, 1922 ends up leaving a lot to the imagination. It’s a risky gambit for a film that’s been building up to something big from the beginning, but it ultimately helps the movie leave a more chilling impression. The details matter less than the sheer fact of Wilfred’s doom, which was fated from the moment of his unforgivable transgression.
1922 is not the crowd-pleaser that Gerald’s Game will likely be: It’s meaner, less triumphant, and sparse in a way that is likely to alienate some viewers. But it’s another solid King adaptation and a good sign of things to come. Hilditch shows a lot of promise here, and he’s attracted some serious talent — Schmid is especially good as the tortured, malleable Henry. If we’re going to keep making and remaking stories from the King canon, then let’s hope they’re all as thoughtful and carefully crafted as these Netflix films, which — even when they falter — show respect for the source material as well as a desire to elevate it with distinctly cinematic flair.
Because these are stories worth telling, gripping tales of past sins refusing to stay buried and the monsters that are always lurking in the shadows. Gerald’s Game and 1922 both play with the idea of the blurry line between fantasy and reality, and how fear can overtake you whether the threat is merely imagined or plainly in-your-face. That is the essence of why King works, and it was part of what made It — about a creature that embodies the purest distillation of fear — such a memorable experience. It doesn’t matter if the giants or the rats or the evil clowns are really there: The horror always is.