This has been a particularly great year for fans of Stephen King (and probably for King himself too) with a number of adaptations, both great ( It and Gerald’s Game) and not so great ( The Dark Tower and 1922) and it’s gotten a lot of people ( us included) talking about our favorite Stephen King movies.
It’s also gotten me specifically interested in watching the ones I hadn’t yet seen. This year afforded me (thanks to Blu-ray releases) the opportunity to watch Firestarter and Children of the Corn, and now, thanks to Scream Factory, I’ve gotten to check a big one off my list: Rob Reiner’s 1990 movie, Misery.
Now, I say I hadn’t seen Misery until this, and that’s technically true, but it’s a film I feel like I’d seen because of how pervasive its influence was when I was growing up. Misery was a HUGE movie in 1990, and everybody saw it and talked about it. And because I was only six at the time, I was particularly absorbent when it came to adults talking about scary things. My parents would talk about how Kathy Bates was terrifying, made even more so by the fact that she uses little kid swear words instead of real ones, and the infamous “hobbling” scene remains one of the most memorable horror film moments of all time. And yet, upon actually watching, I was struck by how funny the movie is, and how curiously imperfect it is as well.
James Caan plays Paul Sheldon, a famous novelist who is in the mountains of Colorado in the dead of winter to finish his latest manuscript. We learn through flashbacks with his agent (played by Lauren Bacall) that he’s gained fame by writing a series of 1800s-set romance novels about a heroine named Misery Chastain, and he’s eager to shed that series and do something new, even going so far as to kill the character off. As he drives away from his cabin, in the middle of a blizzard, he skids off the road and crashes, busting himself up greatly, and he’s saved from hypothermia by recluse Annie Wilkes (Bates), a former nurse who brings Sheldon back from the brink of death.
Now, Annie is not your average lady in any sense. She’s almost comically nice and is Sheldon’s self-professed biggest fan, devoting much of her life to Misery Chastain’s adventures. Sheldon is at first grateful, then embarrassed by the flattery, and then he starts to sense a darkness in Annie. As his legs heal, he wants to call his agent and his daughter, but Annie says the phones are out, though the roads have been clear for over a week. She goes and buys Sheldon’s newest (and last) Misery novel and devours it. When she gets to the ending, she snaps. “You murdered her!” She reveals she’s never attempted to call anyone, nobody knows Sheldon is in her house, and she’s never going to let him out. It then becomes a fight for Sheldon to regain his strength and overcome his biggest fan.
Obviously, there’s some parallels in the story to King’s own life. Evidently, he wrote the 1987 novel–initially intending it to be credited to his pen name Richard Bachman–directly as a response to the public reaction to his 1984 novel, The Eyes of the Dragon, an epic-fantasy novel that fans rejected because it wasn’t the horror they were used to. And Misery benefits from this mixture of disdain and fear from the rabid portion of the fanbase, something any creative type can relate to.
There’s a degree of humor in the movie I certainly wasn’t expecting. Caan’s reaction to almost everything Bates says is a big, over-the-top placation but whenever she turns her back or leaves the room, he has some snide comment that always made me laugh. There’s also a lot of humor to be mined from the B-plot of the film, in which local sheriff Buster (Richard Farnsworth) and his wife/deputy Virginia (Frances Sternhagen) have banter while attempting to search for Sheldon. It’s their investigation that creates a lot of the tension in the movie, since we know the writer’s salvation is tantalizingly close, but may as well be a thousand miles away.
Bates’ performance was rightfully lauded at the time–she won an Oscar and everything–and it should be remembered now. It’s astonishingly good, threading the needle between charmingly quirky and dangerously unhinged. Her rant about old movie serials cheating the audience with their cliffhangers remains a bonkers piece of acting. “He didn’t get out of the cock-a-doodie car!” will haunt my dreams. Caan’s performance is also quite good, and he has the thankless task of being the “victim” in the movie and writhing around in agony a lot. For the most part, this movie works the best when it’s just long scenes between these two.
Ultimately, though, there were moments in the movie that, like Annie’s dismay at writerly cheats, I can’t help but think were screenwriter William Goldman and director Rob Reiner trying to get away with something. Pieces of information that create great suspense are dropped for long stretches of time and then brought back seemingly in the wrong place. The hobbling scene is brilliant in isolation but it doesn’t seem to have any effect going forward; Sheldon never makes mention of his legs getting better, to the point of him starting to walk, and the very next scene after it, he’s just in the wheelchair with his feet perfectly straight. And don’t get me started on Buster. King was annoyed at Stanley Kubrick’s treatment of Dick Halloran in The Shining movie, and Buster (a character not really in the novel) gets much the same treatment.
Those odd quibbles aside, Misery is highly entertaining, and very funny despite the macabre atmosphere. The special edition Blu-ray from Scream Factory makes the movie look and sound phenomenal, and gives us a bevy of features from old editions, as well as new interviews with director Reiner and special effects supervisor Greg Nicotero. This is a must-buy for King fanatics, and really fans of amazing performances.
Images: Castle Rock Entertainment/Scream Factory