Amanda Walsh, based on a short story, brothers, Byron Shah, Chandler Riggs, children in peril, Chris Browning, cinema, creepy buildings, demons, Dylan McDermott, dysfunctional family, Eddie Jones, farmhouse, feuding brothers, film adaptations, film reviews, films, flashbacks, Frances O'Connor, Gramma, grandmothers, Hastur, horror, isolated estates, Joel Courtney, literary adaptation, Mark Duplass, Matt Greenberg, Mercy, Movies, Peter Cornwell, possession, Reza Safinia, Shirley Knight, single mother, Stephen King, suicide, violence against children, voice-over narration, weeping book
When it comes to filmed adaptations of literary works, the question always comes around to “How close do you stay to the original work?” As a visual medium, film is a much different ballgame than written works and not every book or short story is equally suited to adaptation. In particular, adapting short stories can present certain challenges, especially when filmmakers attempt to make full-length productions out of decidedly shorter works: when you only have 20-30 pages of the original material to work with, stretching the proceedings to 80 or 90 minutes seems to make about as much sense as a silent-film version of a Mamet play.
This, of course, becomes the first (and, perhaps, most significant) problem with Peter Cornwell’s recent adaptation of the Stephen King short story “Gramma,” here renamed Mercy (2014) in honor of the titular character. While Cornwell’s version of the story gets quite a bit right and makes great use of the creepy, isolated farmhouse locale, it also bears little resemblance to the original, save for the film’s final 20 minutes. By attempting to expand King’s original short to roughly three times its size, Cornwell and screenwriter Matt Greenberg manage to add lots of stuff and nonsense, especially concerning “gramma’s” backstory, but very little in the way of real value. In the process, the filmmakers manage to strip much of the quiet menace from King’s story, a creepy little shocker with a simple premise (little kid stuck by himself with his creepy, dead grandmother), turning it into something both more complex and, unfortunately, far less interesting.
After her aging mother, Mercy (Shirley Knight), has a stroke, single mother Rebecca (Francis O’Connor) and her two young sons, George (Chandler Riggs) and Buddy (Joel Courtney), move into her dilapidated farmhouse, in order to take care of her. Rebecca’s loutish brother, Lanning (Mark Duplass), had been taking care of their mother but he’s not quite reliable (he may also be a little crazy, come to think of it) and doesn’t really seem to care whether Mercy lives or dies. Also on the scene are Jim (Dylan McDermott) and his wife, Charlotte (Amanda Walsh), an artist who paints eerie pictures of local “haints” like the death wolf. Seems that Jim and Rebecca used to be an item, back in the day, and there appear to be a few unrequited feelings flying around on both their behalves: hell, even the kids make constant comments about “the one who got away” and keep talking about how they wish dear ol’ mom had married Jim, when she had the chance.
Via flashbacks, we’ve already had a little inkling of Mercy’s past, including her tireless efforts to conceive (she has one miscarriage after the other, at first), as well as the shocking suicide of her husband (by axe to the face which, if you think about it, is pretty much one of the most hardcore way to off yourself, ever). After her stroke, Mercy has been mostly silent, although her eyes seem ever watchful. When George gets a mysterious note that mentions “Hastur,” however, he sets off a rather dreadful chain of events when he speaks the name to his ailing grandmother. In no time, Mercy seems sharper, more alert and, needless to say, more than a little sinister (she’s given to dropping more big winks than the wolf in a Merrie Melodies short). As bodies begin to pile up around them, George is faced with the frightening notion that his beloved gramma may be both more and less than completely human: with the help of his brother and a local priest (Eddie Jones), George must get to the bottom of Mercy’s past, before he becomes her next victim.
Right from the jump, Mercy looks and sounds great: Byron Shah’s evocative cinematography really shows off the landscape and creepy farmhouse to great effect and the droning musical score, courtesy of Reza Safinia, adds immeasurable tension to the proceedings. The acting is generally pretty good, with industry vet Shirley Knight chewing a bit less scenery than she’s been known to and familiar faces like Dylan McDermott and Mark Duplass giving a little oomph to the film. Chandler Riggs isn’t bad as George, although I found Joel Courtney’s performance as his brother to be slightly off. The film moves at a decent clip and, at slightly under 80 minutes, doesn’t really wear its welcome out until the final reel.
The biggest problem, as previously mentioned, is how overstuffed Mercy’s narrative is compared to the original source material. While the need to expand on the evil gramma’s backstory makes sense, the new material ends up being rather confusing and unnecessarily jumbled: by the time we get to the climax, we’ve even been introduced to some sort of shaggy Sasquatch-demon-thing that pops up out of nowhere, sends the narrative in a new direction and disappears just as quickly. Unlike the sinister bit of foreshadowing that ends the original story (although these kind of “Or are they actually evil?” endings have been driven into the ground, as of late), the conclusion to Cornwell’s film makes little sense: the film ends happily but certain unresolved issues seem to make this an impossibility, rendering the final image as something perilously close to silly.
Despite all of the frustratingly unnecessary added backstory, I kind of liked Mercy: for much of the film, the atmosphere and tension is as thick as a New England fog and there are some genuinely interesting ideas floating around (the concept of the “weeping book” is pretty great, to be honest). While the acting can, occasionally, dip into the highly unrealistic, most of the time, Mercy is filled with some nice, dependable performances, none of which really stick out like a sore thumb. Perhaps my overall dissatisfaction with the film has more to do with my status as an avowed Stephen King fan than any more technical reason: in any other situation, Mercy would be an enjoyable, decent-enough B-horror film. As a King adaptation, however, the film comes up just a little bit short.