Written by: Stephen King (short story), Matt Greenberg (screenplay)
Directed by: Peter Cornwell
Starring: Frances O'Connor, Shirley Knight, and Chandler Riggs
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Thou shalt suffer a witch to live.
Genre titans past and present collide with Mercy, a Stephen King adaptation produced by Blumhouse, which is the sort of pairing you’d think make bigger headlines. But alas, this one slipped so far under the radar that it basically went directly to Wal-Mart’s $5 bin. And before you can say “there’s probably a reason for that!” I’ll have you know that some of my favorite discoveries have been fished out of those wonderful repositories of discarded and unassuming discs. Plus, Blumhouse’s track record when it comes to distribution is spotty at best, as some of their more forgettable efforts have graced the big screen while stronger ones have gone straight to video (or Netflix). Besides, it’s a Stephen King movie—they could have charged me five times as much and I’d buy it (though actually getting around to watching it immediately is a different story since I bought this movie at least a few years ago).
Anyway, if you’re thinking “there’s probably a reason for that, too,” you’re…absolutely right. There's a reason we're currently in the midst of a King renaissance, as the intervening years between The Mist and last year's trio of It, Gerald's Game, and 1922 were a pretty much the dark ages in this respect, filled with weak, unremarkable adaptations that left Constant Readers wondering if their beloved author would ever be done justice on the screen again.
So it is with Mercy, Hollywood’s second pass at adapting “Gramma” from King’s Skeleton Crew collection after the 80s Twilight Zone gave it a go. For the most part, it’s a reasonable attempt, one that keeps the vital organs of the short story intact and pads them out to meet a scant 79-minute feature runtime. Pre-adolescent George (Chandler Riggs) loves his grandma Mercy (Shirley Knight), a kindly woman he considers to be his best friend. Naturally, he’s despondent when she has a stroke that leaves her with the mental faculties of an infant, and the situation worsens when she’s forced out of her assisted care home, leaving George, his mother (Frances O’Connor), and his brother (Joel Courtney) to return to the family home and care for her. Returning to this place—which was responsible for so many of George’s fond memories—proves to be a disaster when he begins to uncover dear old grandma’s sordid history with the occult.
As far as hooks go, this one’s pretty tremendous, though I’m not sure just how much material there is to stretch it out to feature length without, well, stretching. Mercy doesn’t provide a compelling counterargument: though it’s totally fine, it’s a forgettable entry to the King adaptation canon, largely because it all but refuses to really engage with the author’s distinctive voice. I understand wanting to put your own stamp on material, but that only works if there’s a clear vision or voice involved. You’ll find little of either in Mercy, a sadly generic effort that somehow renders King’s Lovecraft rift into yet another formulaic supernatural horror movie, complete with loud jump scares and lame CGI imagery.
Even that might be forgivable if it provided anything else of interest in the way of characters or subplots. Given that the original short story is the literary equivalent of a chamber piece (it unfolds within the space of a couple of hours and only features a handful of characters), the film has a remarkable amount of shit going on involving several different characters—it’s just that it’s not at all committed to seeing any of them through to any satisfying conclusion. While the thrust of the story with George and Mercy works well enough, it’s surrounded by so much go-nowhere nonsense, including an entire subplot with an aunt that’s been institutionalized and who may or may not be sending suspicious letters in the mail. For the life of me, I can’t really figure out what she’s doing in the story beyond functioning as a red herring, though. In fact, it feels like the script all but forgets about her until the end, when it trots out a hasty, bewildering resolution.
Mercy more or less treats every supporting character like that. Mark Duplass drops in as George’s weirdo, maladjusted uncle, offers some cryptic dialogue hinting at the family’s dark, untold history, and is unceremoniously disposed of to add to the film’s meager body count. Likewise, Dylan McDermott appears as a half-ass father-figure to the boys, as he still harbors a crush on their mom despite being married to a local artist who doubles as an exposition machine when the occult nonsense ramps up in the story. Otherwise, neither of these two has much to do—though I am still chucking about a late twist involving McDermott’s character that’s rendered totally inconsequential within two minutes of its reveal.
There’s a sloppiness to this story that’s much too obvious, and it feels like this film hasn’t been shaped so much as it’s been hastily slapped together in an editing bay by various different hands. Even though the main throughline emerges into something coherent, it’s not enough to distract you from just how extraneous everything else is (even the mom and brother are swiftly shuttled out of the movie right before the climax in a pretty convoluted—if not kind of hilarious—turn of events involving a woodchopper). Unfortunately, that main plot isn’t too swift either, as Riggs—who has previously irritated you with that dumb haircut on The Walking Dead—isn’t compelling enough to carry the film with his whiny preteen moodiness. Much of the film has him defending dear old granny from all the sordid stories he hears and doing it in the most cloying manner imaginable. Scenes where he talks to an imaginary friend only make things more awkward, especially once she, too, is reduced to a plot device and a story twist.
Just about the only intriguing aspect here is his investigation into that family history. An old tale—one that he’s grown up to assume was just a scary story to keep the kids in line—insists his grandfather plunged an axe into his own face. Not only does he learn that this is true, but it’s also just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to family secrets. Only during this brief stretch does Mercy really embrace its roots and commit to the weird lore King conjured up in his short story. Weeping books, spells, demons, and good intentions gone horribly awry offer a glimpse into that Lovecraftian dimension that’s sadly muted by the rest of the film (and the arbitrary decision to transplant the tale from Castle Rock to a nondescript West Virginia location does it no favors in terms of atmosphere). By the time the climax rolls around and offers the usual tepid spook-a-blast shenanigans, whatever distinctiveness Mercy once had is all but drowned out by demon growls and tame bloodshed.
For a film that’s ostensibly so straightforward, Mercy weirdly just has too much going on to satisfy. Forgive the obvious criticism, but this is a story much better suited for the short format, at least if this take is any indication. So much of it feels like obvious padding, with very little of it adding up to anything satisfying, leaving King fans wanting yet again after yet another lackluster adaptation.
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