From Book to Screen: Mercy

The Stephen King Book to Screen series continues as we conclude with what is currently the final adaptation of a story from the Skeleton Crew collection. Let’s recap the remaining stories from this collection and whether they need, or could even sustain, an adaptation.

“The Word Processor of the Gods” is certainly an interesting one, about a typewriter that can type anything into existence. While a feature seems like it would need to add a bit of material, it was adapted into an episode of the Tales from the Darkside TV series, probably a fitting enough choice. The next, “The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands”, is your typical chilly haunted curse story, built on a certain degree of atmosphere. This could make for a film, though it would also need a bit added to it. It has also been previously adapted into a short film. “Beachworld” is a bizarre sci-fi tale about a world covered in sand, and it certainly plays more to the psychological horror side. It could also make for a surreal sort of film, and several short films have been made capturing that tone.

Another classic ghost tale comes in the form of “The Reaper’s Image,” about a haunted mirror where the visage of the Grim Reaper appears. Typical cursed things happen after seeing the image. This isn’t King’s most unique story and probably doesn’t need a film version, and it hasn’t been adapted thus far. “Nona” is about a man encountering a siren-like woman figure and features an unreliable narrator and an unclear ending. This type of intrigue could make for a good film, but it hasn’t received one yet. It connects to several other King works with several crossover characters. King includes another poem later in the collection, “For Owen,” made for King’s son, which certainly doesn’t need to be adapted.

One of King’s most grisly and violent stories, “Survivor Type,” is a graphic depiction of a doctor stranded on an island after a ship crash who is forced to eat himself in order to survive. This is just brutal unrelenting gross-out gore, though it could potentially make a film with the right touch. There are five different short film adaptations out there thus far. We get another King haunted vehicle story in the form of “Uncle Otto’s Truck.” This one is maybe more haunting than Christine in the subtleties employed, though it likely can’t sustain a feature. It has been made into two short films and a comic. The next two stories, “Morning Deliveries” and “Big Wheels: A Tale of the Laundry Game,” are both segments of an unfinished novel about a murderous milkman. They make for interesting stories on their own that could be adapted together into a film with perhaps King adding something more to finish out the story. His cynical, dark humor helps elevate the tale.

The final two stories in the collection (coming after the one featured today, “Gramma”) are “The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet” and “The Reach.” Both are psychological stories dealing with different aspects of the human psyche. The first features a writer who starts seeing small imps after reading a fellow writer’s story and learning of that writer’s own paranoid delusions. The writer at the center starts falling into the delusions himself, and the tale unfurls from there. This would definitely make for an interesting work if done correctly.

The second tale features a woman near the end of her days seemingly hallucinating as she takes one last walk out to a frozen island. This tale deals with death in the typical King manner with much solemn forlornness and a haunting if somewhat peaceful ending. It could make for a good drama film in the vein of some of King’s other magical reality films. It has been made into one short film and a comic adaptation.

But now we turn to the tale at the center of today’s article:

“Gramma” was published in the spring 1984 issue of the magazine Weirdbook. Not the typical nudie mag that many of these short stories are harvested from, Weirdbook was a sci-fi and horror story magazine publishing stories from a variety of authors. While the magazine eventually went defunct, a new incarnation of the magazine exists today. The magazine often featured tales set in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos.

That makes “Gramma” a fitting entrant into the magazine, as King once again tackles beings from Lovecraft’s famed cosmology. King’s references are usually less direct to Lovecraft, but he occasionally pulls a being in full-thrust as he does here. The framing of the story is simple – a young boy is left to watch his decrepit old grandmother as his mother rushes to take his brother to the hospital over an hour away.

The boy is freaked out over having to care for the old woman and begins to reflect and remember some odd memories about her from his past. Tales of infertility and sudden fertility and strange circumstances surrounding his grandmother all rush through his head.

Suddenly, our young protagonist has a revelation! His grandmother is a witch.

Then, she dies. And the real fun begins. The source of the grandmother’s power makes reference to Hastur, a Lovecraftian entity of evil. The story ends with a note for grimness that won’t be spoiled here.

While King certainly has written plenty better, “Gramma” is a haunting enough story. It plays on the fear of old people that King has mined before, but it pins itself fairly well in its young protagonist’s mind, letting you empathize with his fears. The witchcraft touch feels a tad heavy-handed. Even so, you can’t help but feel a chill or two at the story’s grim conclusion. There’s no clear indicator of any contemporary reception, but King felt compelled to include it in the collection, so it must have been received well enough.

Apart from being adapted into an episode of The New Twilight Zone (which did feature the voice talents of King alum Piper Laurie), “Gramma” was adapted into the 2014 film Mercy. Not a lot of detail is available about the production of it, though it is a Blumhouse work. Curiously, there haven’t been many King adaptations done by Blumhouse, though one might think that’s a natural pairing.

The film is directed by Peter Cornwell, whose only other feature was the frigidly received The Haunting in Connecticut. Unfortunately, Mercy‘s direction is about at that level of quality. Our young protagonist is portrayed competently, if not particularly well, by Chandler Riggs, most known for The Walking Dead. But the script adds a bunch of unnecessary tangled plot lines about his family all taking part in covering up Gramma’s dirty secrets. And Cornwell’s direction is unapologetically bland, virtually indistinguishable from the multitude of Blumhouse horror films out there.

One might understand adding plotlines to an adaptation of a short story, but “Gramma” wasn’t so deficient on plot that storylines needed to be added. At 79 minutes, Mercy is already mercifully short and a get-in-and-out affair. You could have stuck with the structure of the short story: a frame story of the child spending one night with his Gramma as we get a series of flashbacks that increase the tension. Add a few flashbacks for good measure and you could have had a tense, brisk horror film.

Instead, we get attempts at side characters and plots and themes of motherhood that aren’t really all that developed and just end up feeling like a disjointed add-on that serves no real purpose. Sure, this film manages to pull in decent actors for its side characters in the form of Dylan McDermott and Mark Duplass, but they can’t save the rather deficient writing. The ending of the film is also changed to be upbeat, which undercuts much of the occult Lovecraftian tone.

Mercy isn’t entirely awful, but it’s mostly a mediocre work with Cornwell directing everything as predictably as possible. Toss in some goofy special effects, and the entire movie is fairly underwhelming.

While “Gramma” isn’t one of King’s masterpiece short stories, it does have a creepy atmosphere and the Lovecraftian touchstones unlock a mine of possibilities. A better adaptation could be made than the rather middling effort of Mercy. While there probably isn’t high demand to bring this short story to life, it could make a pretty creepy film with a director who is interested in emphasizing the child’s fear of the elderly mixed in with some occult evil. As it stands, Mercy is not worth checking out except for the most dedicated King fans.

  • Ranked #68,815 globally
  • 36 users have ranked it
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  • 89/93 on the Stephen King filter

These are my personal rankings for every King adaptation I’ve written about for this series. At the very end, we will see where my Stephen King taste overlaps with the global consensus.

  1. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
  2. Stand By Me (1986)
  3. Carrie (1976)
  4. The Dead Zone (1983)
  5. The Mist (2007)
  6. Creepshow (1982)
  7. The Stand (1994)
  8. Stephen King’s The Shining (1994)
  9. Cat’s Eye (1985)
  10. Christine (1983)
  11. The Running Man (1987)
  12. Cujo (1983)
  13. The Shining (1980)
  14. Pet Sematary (1989)
  15. Silver Bullet (1985)
  16. Apt Pupil (1998)
  17. Thinner (1996)
  18. Sometimes They Come Back (1991)
  19. Salem’s Lot (2004)
  20. Children of the Corn (2009)
  21. Salem’s Lot (1979)
  22. Firestarter (1984)
  23. Creepshow 2 (1987)
  24. Pet Sematary (2019)
  25. The Dark Tower (2017)
  26. Carrie (2013)
  27. Mercy (2014)
  28. Children of the Corn (1984)
  29. The Mangler (1995)
  30. Graveyard Shift (1990)
  31. Maximum Overdrive (1986)
  32. Carrie (2002)
  33. The Lawnmower Man (1992)
  34. Trucks (1997)

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