Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Peter Cornwell
Writer: Matt Greenberg, Stephen King
Producer: Jason Blum, McG, Mary Viola
Stars: Frances O’Connor, Shirley Knight, Mark Duplass, Chandler Riggs, Joel Courtney, Dylan McDermott, Chris Browning, Amanda Walsh, Eddie Jones, Hana Hayes
When his family is forced to care for her following a stroke, a young boy learns that his beloved grandmother may be a witch.
Left alone with his ailing grandmother when Mom takes brother Buddy to the hospital, George discovers that granny made a deal with a demon, and his soul is part of her bargain. That’s not a summary for “Mercy.” That’s a summary for the Stephen King short story “Gramma,” upon which “Mercy” is based. It’s only one sentence because the tale is so straightforward that Harlan Ellison adapted it into a quick 21-minute episode of “The Twilight Zone” in 1986 starring just two visible actors.
In expanding the work into a feature length film, “Mercy” understandably needed to embellish the details beyond merely one boy and his grandmother. So “Mercy” added a grandfather who dies of a self-inflicted ax wound, a triplet birth for grandma, an expanded role for brother Buddy, an aunt in the loony bin, an uncle in the bottle, an imaginary friend for George, a love interest for mom, a “devil worshipping” artist wife for the love interest, a concerned local reverend, and some occult mythology about death wolves and weeping books.
By the time “Mercy” went before the cameras, that tale “The Twilight Zone” told with two people had bloomed to a cast of 21 and a screenplay stuffed with subplots. This isn’t one of those fanboy or film scholar whines about an adaptation taking liberties with its source material, however. Rather, documenting these differences gets to the bottom of how “Mercy” ends up in a mire of more ideas than it knows what to do with.
Having made casting announcements in 2012, and presumably entering production around the same time, “Mercy” became part of that “whatever happened to…?” subsection of Blumhouse productions unceremoniously slipped into VOD channels in October 2014. The two years in between were not spent patiently acquiring cobwebs on a shelf, though. From the truncated runtime to the non-sequitur storytelling, “Mercy” evidently went under the editor’s knife for a hefty amount of tinkering, likely more than once.
Blink and you’ll miss Dylan McDermott’s early appearance seated at a family gathering while grandma trots out a pot roast. What’s he doing in the movie? I’m not sure. Neither is “Mercy.” His character doesn’t receive a formal introduction until a few scenes later, after a “one year later” interlude clutters up his relation to the core family even further.
Part of his association is to serve as a love interest for George’s mother Rebecca, a purpose unfulfilled since the two of them have but two brief moments together, one of which is inaudible. McDermott’s role is one of several whose inclusion is so curious and random, you can tell you are looking at a puzzle put together without all of the right pieces in place.
In the original King short, and in “Mercy” too, George’s brother Buddy exists mainly to get Mom out of the house so George can be alone with grandma. “Mercy” gives Buddy more to do anyway with his characterization as a budding young chef that would be completely pointless if it wasn’t genuinely amusing.
When the brothers find a black magic grimoire requiring tears to reveal its text, Buddy thinks to make himself cry by reminiscing about Julia Child, who “died too young.” Joel Courtney delivers the absurd line with such sincerity that the laugh is virtually guaranteed. Mark Duplass offers similar entertainment value with his drunk uncle role tiptoeing between disheveled creep and endearing alcoholic in a way that puts all eyes on him whenever he is onscreen. “Mercy” is guilty of juggling more personalities than make sense for its story, but at least these two crack smiles through the incoherence.
Consider how act three kicks off its climax: All of the doors in Mercy’s house are supernaturally locked and George is unable to escape. For only the third time in the film, George’s “Girl Next Door” imaginary friend serendipitously appears and tells the boy that he must retrieve the ax in the cellar to chop down the doors. Shortly thereafter, George stumbles into a ceremonial circle where he spots the weeping book, which has magically reappeared despite Buddy shredding it in a wood chipper. (It’s also depicting new pages despite no one crying on it.) George flees in fright straight out the front door, apparently no longer locked, rendering that “ax in the cellar” requirement moot. Mercy captures George, but the boy fends off her attack with a verbena flower, a plant that arrived on the doorstep moments before thanks to an anonymous angel.
In just under a three-minute span, “Mercy” employs two deus ex machinas (The Girl Next Door and the verbena plant), and has two continuity lapses (the reappearing tome and an unlocked front door). This is to say nothing of the solitary car on a deserted country road suddenly striking Jim, why George’s mother would call a cell phone somehow in the possession of her escaped mental patient sister, or the “death wolf” who does nothing but glow his yellow eyes to frighten people into Mercy’s house.
Intriguing fiction is afoot in “Mercy,” but a non-committal attitude leaves it listing in an uncertain direction. Look no further for evidence than the seesawing conclusion not quite sure if it wants to stick to King’s grim outcome or opt for something more cheerful. “Mercy” does both simultaneously, ensuring that the audience leaves with one more unscratched itch on their scalps.
I assume a 120-minute cut of “Mercy” exists with all of its scenes intact and arranged in an order where what the creators intended fully translates onto the screen. I also assume that version must have been a complete snoozer to warrant trading continuity for a quicker paced 75-minutes that is mildly entertaining, albeit narratively unsatisfying.
A darkly compelling story exists somewhere in the thick of “Mercy.” There may even be a thoroughly entertaining horror film hidden within the footage that was shot. But the misshapen monster ultimately cut together is a patchwork assembly that would confound even Dr. Frankenstein.
Review Score: 55