Mercy: a recent adaptation of Stephen King's mythos-sprinkled short story, Gramma

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Summary: A recent movie adaptation of Stephen King's 'Gramma' adds some story, and some fluff, and tries to find some human elements.

BLOT: (10 Nov 2014 - 09:31:47 PM)

Mercy: a recent adaptation of Stephen King's mythos-sprinkled short story, Gramma

"Gramma", from the Stephen King collection, Skeleton Crew, is a mythos-sprinkled short story in a similar vein as Robert Bloch's "Notebook Found in a Deserted House": an examination of an innocent brushing up against the chaos of the outer dark. In King's original, the pieces are few and lean: George is left alone with his very ill, and very scary, grandmother after his older brother is injured, and he is faced with all the scary stories he has heard about her as things turn from merely worrisome to downright bad-news. The mom is mostly a cipher. The brother is a prick. The grandmother is obese, bed-ridden vessel of bad-stuff. You end up knowing more about two loud-mouthed neighbors than anyone else but George himself. It sets up a few dominoes so it can easily knock them down. Works nicely, though.

And while the name Hastur surfaces, along with Yog-Soth-oth [as it is spelled in the story] and hints of could be a Satanic story as much as a mythos one, or, like Ramsey Campbell's meatier The Influence, a story about a relative with a particular hold on the rest of the family. It works as a mythos story mostly due to stories like "The Thing on the Doorstep" and The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward, where things can be brought up that can't be put back down and sometimes the human exterior is just a facade for darker things underneath, but I'll avoid going into many more details.

In the Harlan Ellison's adaptation for The New Twilight Zone, also called "Gramma", Ellison tried at strengthening the mythos elements by name-dropping Cthulhu—which George describes as a silly name—several times, along with the Necronomicon, and having the dark book come from under the floorboard where some sort of hellish light is burning coldly. Overall, though, Ellison's "Gramma" is weaker than King's since everything is even more a cipher, except that which is overblown.

Which brings us to the 2014 Matthew Greenberg adapted Mercy, directed by Peter Cornwell. It stretches out the simple pieces and tries to add in some flavor. It is somewhat faithful to the original, with the events of the short story being roughly the events from the last 25 or so minutes of the film. It tries to explain just who Gramma is, and why she did what she did, and mostly does something ok with itself, even if it straps a couple of unnecessary refrains to its chest.

This is the first version where you give a crap about Gramma (the eponymous Mercy). She is shown to be sweet to George, though whether this is ultimately for good or bad reasons can be up for some debate. The brother has been dialed back from a bullying older brother into sports to something a bit more unique: a slightly more effete, supportive older brother into cooking. The drunken, dickish uncle is given a brilliant, if unlikable, performance. And, perhaps most importantly for a horror movie, when stuff starts going bad, the sense of inevitability of the short story is set aside for moments of hope.

As a note, there are a lot of subplots here. Mom has an old flame. There is an extended bit with the grandmother's dealings with the church. There's a legend of a death wolf. There's mention of things in the hills. George has an imaginary girlfriend. A specific sort of grimoire is referenced. A complicated family history. It never quite detracts, but it seems a little insane at times how much is added in to fill the movie out when it is under an hour and twenty minutes. Especially when the original story's best humanizing elements—the loud mouthed neighbors and the constant refrain of George's "laying chilly"—are completely stripped.

Then, somewhere in between the best and the bothersomes of the movie, is the handling of the mythos elements. Hastur gets mentioned, a lot. Drinking game quantities. And then Hastur is blended in with something like Dunwich's Yog and maybe something like King's He Who Walks Behind the Rows—a physically present entity watching from nearby [a very brief shout out to Randall Flagg, one of Nyarlathotep's incarnations, adds a cameo-sized glance into the mythos as well]. This element I enjoyed, the binding of the mythos to a location, but I realize it would have been better had a sense of location been stronger [the story is set near Castle Rock, I believe, but this movie feels like just about anywhere]. The grimoire of the tale has a neat catch, though its presentation is just a bit too flash, and at least it's not the well-overused Necronomicon.

In the end, I think the ending will be the clincher. Absolutely no spoilers, but I think the acting and the writing and the setting and the pacing are all well enough, while never great, that it will be a 4-star movie or a 2-star movie based on how well you roll with the ending. I enjoyed it, therefore I enjoyed the movie. Others will be perturbed, but that is always the case.

As a note, at least for right now, Mercy is available on Netflix.

Horror Movies, Lovecraft


Written by Doug Bolden

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