The Long and Short of It: Gramma vs. Mercy

There were some genre heavyweights behind the development of Gramma, one of the most memorable entries in the 1985 reboot of “The Twilight Zone.” It was adapted by Harlan Ellison himself from the Stephen King short story of the same name, from his anthology Skeleton Crew. Over 20 years later, in 2014, it was adapted into a full-length movie called Mercy. Both versions, in their own way, stick closely to the source material: A boy, George, has to be left home alone one night with his sick grandmother, of whom he is afraid—with good reason, it turns out, since she’s a witch with malicious designs on him. 

It’s hard to hate on the film adaptation when it was obviously made in earnest—and I’m not just saying that because of the nods to other Stephen King works, like the “R.L. Flagg Home for the Aged.” Mercy expands plot elements from the story, like the grandmother’s dalliance with the black arts, her struggle with infertility, and her strained relationship with her now-grown children. It’s a smart move, because there was a lot in King’s text that could easily be fleshed out in a feature film. It had all this backstory beyond what was happening between George and his grandmother on the night she “died”—much of it, owing to the time constraints of its 20-minute format, that “The Twilight Zone” segment could only mention in passing or hint at.

With an excellent source material and a decent cast—one that includes Shirley Knight, Frances O’Connor, and Dylan McDermott—where does Mercy fail? Well, they flubbed that ending, for one. Mercy deviates from the original ending, in which George tries to invoke an eldritch God to fight off his grandmother’s attempts to take over his body. It’s supposed to work, but it doesn’t, and it’s never really explained why. Ellison’s teleplay tries to rectify this by making it so George has no idea how to vanquish her—he’s never given a fighting chance. Similarly, I would understand why the filmmakers behind Mercy would want an ending that makes more sense: George successfully fights off his grandmother, who is possessed by Hastur, and it’s suggested that her spirit (represented by a ghost girl that guides him, ugh) is finally at peace when she dies. The problem is that it’s not an effective ending. Maybe it’s the bad lighting, the cheesy special effects, or the half-baked attempt at a feel-good resolution, but whatever the case, it’s just not scary. It has a B-movie feel to it—and not in a good way.

“The Twilight Zone” episode’s strength is that it has real pants-crapping scenes; there’s a palpable sense of foreboding leading up to the final showdown between our two leads. It portrays Gramma, much like in King’s story, as a demanding, sickly, overweight hag—like a souped-up version of Zelda from Pet Sematary. In the text, George’s suppressed memories start to come back to him, and he realizes there were hints all throughout his childhood of her true nature. In fact, everyone in the family was rightly terrified of her.

One of the laudable parts of Mercy is that it tried to humanize her character; it actually shows some kind of relationship between her and George. He cares about his grandmother and tries to save her, whereas the short story and the episode both depict her as merely a villain beyond remorse or redemption. This could have been an interesting take on the source material—especially considering it was inspired by King’s own youth in Durham and memories of his mother, Ruth, caring after his aged grandparents. The problem with this approach, however, is that the titular Gramma was what made the story so punchy: she looks and sounds horrifying, more monster than man, and “The Twilight Zone” reflects that. Making her a sympathetic character came at the cost of being an effective horror film. This shouldn’t have been the case; I feel a though there could have been a way to do both, but Mercy fumbled the execution.

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Victoria Vizcarra

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