Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Book review: Gerald's Game by Stephen King

Gerald's Game
Written by Stephen King

Published in: 1992

Synopsis: A game of seduction between a husband and wife goes horribly awry when the husband dies. But the nightmare has just begun...

My Thoughts: Oh Gerald's Game, I do love you so.Why? Well first, it was terrifying! It's Stephen King's special brand of grounded-in-reality-this-could-is-will-be-you horror. Nearing her 40th birthday, Jessie Burlingame (wife of Gerald, subject of his game) is apathetic, disinterested and removed from everything in her life. As the book opens, Jessie is having her wrists snapped into handcuffs by her paunchy, boring lawyer husband Gerald and is finally realising how little she likes the man she's shared a life with for nearly two decades. Unfortunately, realising this when your hands are held tight by police-grade handcuffs invariably leads down a dangerous path. As she realises how little she likes him, she realises he's only interested in dominating her, and reducing her to, in essence, a sex toy. Trapped, Jessie lashes out when her husband refuses to listen to her pleas to be released and she believes he intends to take advantage of her vulnerable position.Unfortunately, what was meant to be about a wake-up call to snap Gerald back to reality, is the catalyst to the heart attack that has been looming over her over-worked, over-stressed, overweight husband. Dead on the other side of the bedroom, Jessie is trapped with her arms over her head, unable to move in any substantial way. Oh, and did I mention they were up at their lake house in the middle of nowhere? So Jessie is trapped, almost naked, in the middle of no where in Autumn. This aspect of the novel had real ties to Misery (another favourite King novel of mine) and really affected me. This is such a simple situation that could happen to ANYONE. Unlike Misery where you really need a nutso fan to come across your prone broken body for the events to unfold, it isn't unheard of for a husband and wife to embark on some kinky sex games, and there are hundreds (if not thousands) of reported cases of a sexual partner dying mid-coitus. Fortunately, most people aren't chained to a bed far away from civilisation.

Alongside the pain and terror that accompanies being trapped in a bed with your husband lying dead nearby, Jessie is forced to remember another terrifying moment from her past. Forced, I hear you ask? As the book begins, we realise that Jessie internal voices. Not in the sense that she's possessed, but in the sense that a lot of people have voices. There are two main voices, at least too begin with, and a series of "UFO" voices that come and go. There's Goody Burlingame, who basically denies that anything bad is happening and is happy to heap blame on Jessie. The second is new to Jessie and sounds an awful lot like her old college roommate, Ruth, and refuses to ignore the shit that's going on. She forces Jessie to accept the reality of the situations, and it's this voice that refuses to let Jessie ignore the event that occurred years earlier when Jessie was only 10 years old. And seriously, when you're stuck to a bed and are looking at dying, shouldn't you perhaps try and face the evil in your past which has stained your entire adult life? I should note, that it's this look back which ties in with the book Dolores Claiborne, as there is a brief cross over in each book which occurs as terrifying events happen to the two females during an eclipse.

As if being trapped and forced to recollect past horrors as you wait to die isn't horrifying enough, Jessie wakes up one night to find a shadowy man-creature in the corner of her room.So now she's tied to the bed and unable to escape, reliving an upsetting moment of her childhood, and is being confronted by what appears to be death, itself. THIS TERRIFIED ME! I could not handle it, I had to actually put the book down one night and watch an episode of Mythbusters to free my imagination from the depths of the book. Because of Jessie's inability to escape, the reader can't escape either. Stephen King drills the three-fold horror of the situation into you by describing the minutia of the story, little things like being desperately thirsty, needing to pee, or seeing shapes and shadows outside of the window are thrown into sharp relief when you read them knowing the hell Jessie is feeling. This book is one of those brilliant Stephen King novels which is grounded in real horror, and anything supernatural is thrown in to accentuate the reality of the horror. Does that make sense?

The other thing I loved about this book is the character of Jessie and King's handling of her situations. One criticism I've had for King in the past is that I never find his female characters particularly interesting or well-developed. This is mostly because they're secondary characters to the male protagonist, but I've always felt like it is his biggest weakness. Now bear with me because this might get confusing and messy and make no sense. Jessie herself isn't a particularly fleshed out character. She's a woman in a bed, and all we get for much of the story is her internal monologue during her 20+ hour incarceration. However, she is one of the best female characters I've ever read written by King because he totally gets it. Jessie has been prayed on since she was 10 years old. She's been abused and taken advantage of in one way or another for nearly 30 years. As she lies chained to the bed, and she realises her husband is going to ignore her pleas for release and force himself on her regardless, she realises how the entire aftermath with play out. He'll get his rocks off, she'll file for divorce and accuse him of rape/assault, he'll say he thought she was just "in character," it'll be her word against his (a successful lawyer), and she'll have to live with that weighing her down forever more while he moves past it. Dude, STEPHEN KING GETS IT. That's all I could think as I read through this scene and the ones like it, King gets how fucked up society can be to women and the bullshit that forces women to keep quiet when they're the victim. Jessie isn't really a single female character, she's women, fullstop. She's every woman who has kept quiet because she doesn't want to get her father/brother/uncle in trouble, or because she thinks she'll be blamed, or because she knows no one will believe her over the man. She's the woman who has given up believing she really deserves anything because of the cloud hanging over her, that she had promised never to tell anyone about. Perhaps not everyone woman finds herself chained to a bed, stalked by a mysterious shadow demon/space cowboy, but the real horror of this story is a horror that many woman have experienced or empathised with.

So yes, I really liked this book. It was scary and twisted up my stomach and came very close to giving me nightmares. But it was also a completely different book than I'm used to reading from King. The discussion of rape and assault and that never-ending horror that causes women (and of course, men too) that features so heavily in this story was incredibly well written and handled with the care, intelligence and empathy it requires. The only downside, to me, was the ending. I won't discuss it because it is a major spoiler, but it really removed me from the urgency and claustrophobic fear that predominated the first three quarters of the story, and that's a real shame. Nonetheless, I think you should go and read this. The sooner, the better.

4.5 out of 5 space cowboys.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Film Review: Take Shelter (2011)

Take Shelter

Directed by: Jeff Nichols

Starring: Michael Shannon
Jessica Chastain
Shae Whigham

Synopsis: Plagued by a series of apocalyptic visions, a young husband and father questions whether to shelter his family from a coming storm, or from himself.

OK so it isn't really a horror film, and in that regard has no real reason to be on this blog. BUT! But, this blog isn't the boss of me and I really freaking loved this movie so screw it, I'm going to wax lyrical about Michael Shannon and his apocalyptic visions because I'm a grown-up and I do what I want!

I went into this film knowing absolutely nothing about it except that Curtis (Michael Shannon) was seeing visions of a huge, world-ending storm. There were a few things in this film that I just did not see coming, and I credit that with having absolutely no idea what genre this film was supposed to be, and no pre-made assumptions about the direction the film would take. So with that in mind, I'm probably going to spoil any chance of you experiencing the same thing by writing a review about be warned!

Curtis is a small town husband and father who works on a drilling crew by day, and spends time at home with his wife, Samantha, (Chastain) and daughter, Hannah, at night. When Curtis begins to suffer from frequent dreams and hallucinations of a humongous storm with apocalyptic after-effects, their simple life is rocked to its foundations. Fearing mental illness Curtis secretly visits a counsellor and seeks medication, but as the dreams worsen and he develops an obsession with renovating their storm shelter, his family and friends begin to fear (for) him. What follows is a slow descent into madness, paranoia, obsession and fear as Curtis' visions become more frequent, while the question "what if..." is always present, lingering just off to the side, partly out of view.

Is he crazy? Are his visions real? Is he going to snap and murder everyone in their town? Until the end credits roll you will never be 100% sure which way this film is going to go. While it is primarily a family drama about a husband who is suffering from these visions, it never lets go of the possibility for a supernatural inclusion, or for a dark devastating turn that'll mess up your sleep for a week. This fervent questioning plays an important role when you consider how slow the film moves. The film revels in forcing you to just sit and watch as this family is pulled apart by mental illness. There are minimal edits and instead you watch an entire conversation, in all its awkwardness or sadness or distress. The characters progress through the entire gamut of emotion that would occur in a normal fight or moment, there are no easy resolutions, no simple answers. And while this results in a slower pacing that I typically enjoy, I respect the hell out of it.

Going hand in hand with the pacing is the visuals in this film. It's hard to find a film these days that isn't visually beautiful (especially films of the indie persuasion) but the beauty of this films wideshot small town aesthetics is emphasised because it is juxtaposed against the claustrophobic storm shelter and Curtis's dark descent into madness and swirling storm clouds. The effect this produces is astounding and one of the biggest draws in this film. My favourite is most definitely the shots with the birds swirling around the sky in apocalyptic formation (see promo image above), especially towards the closing of the film. It's just so, so good!

And the acting, man oh man! Michael Shannon is a phenomenal and completely under-rated actor who is superb in this role. Known best for his roles in Boardwalk Empire and Revolutionary Road, Michael Shannon really embraced the character's quiet and unassuming nature and it is both terrifying and heart-breaking to watch him circle the drain and give in to his paranoia and fear. Jessica Chastain gives a beautifully nuanced performance as his worried wife, Samantha. By the way, where did Jessica Chastain come from?! She has delivered some of the best performances in the best films of 2011, and I had never heard of her before! Hopefully she keeps it up because she won my heart in this role. She's fragile, yet so strong. She's taken on the task of learning sign language so she can communicate with her deaf daughter, and she sells handicrafts on the weekend so that the family can spend one week a year at the beach. She's the glue that holds the family together, but as Curtis falls apart and recedes further into himself, she doesn't have enough fingers to plug all the holes that are threatening to burst.

So all in all a most amazing film! It manages to balance between a couple of genres yet never lose sight of the characters and their own problems, rather than focussing purely on these apocalyptic visions Curtis sees. I do have to warn you all how slow the pacing is, but if you can handle it then definitely find a copy of this film to watch.