For most of us cinephiles, we remember the first time we saw a movie, whether it be in the theater, or at home. If the film shakes you, positively or negatively, there’s a residue left that creeps into your memory and makes it challenging to let go. Well, I don’t want to- so I’m going to highlight some Kristy horror history for this wonderful, special, month of October.
So much of Misery’s “charm” lies in the subtleties, in the obscure corners. While you might be thinking “Wait, what? Annie Wilkes is about as subtle or charming as a… [enter potential expletive here] it’s really quite true. Let’s consider this: Misery is primarily in one central location (nearly just one room) with a focal point of two main characters who try to psychologically outdo the other, and yet, it never feels forced. For this kind of a setup to work, a lot has to come together, and in many ways, the smaller- less obvious parts, are what makes it so great.
Stephen King knows how write an epic story. And, Rob Reiner knows how to make a King adaptation work (see, Stand By Me). Misery proves this as he delivers a suspenseful, unsettling, film. It isn’t always a guarantee when adapting the imaginative work of King, but when it clicks, it clicks.
Famed writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan) has just finished his newest piece, enjoying the high that comes from completion, heading back to NYC from within the snow covered mountains. When his car goes off the road during a storm he’s rescued by his number one fan (how lucky!) Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), a nurse who wants to make sure he’s back in tip top shape. Mhmm.
Misery Love Company
I first saw Misery as a young teenager, and I was pleased to say that I was adequately disturbed. It had this admirable blend of tones that had me feeling as confined and confounded as Paul. I was also impressed because the performances were just so stellar. I had known Caan from my love of The Godfather, and Kathy Bates from Fried Green Tomatoes, and this was nothing like either. I was sold on these portrayals, and I’m not surprised, but quite pleased, that Bates won an Oscar for it.
Despite the fact that Misery is most certainly a horror, it’s also never skimps on the humor. In a discomforting way, it makes the terror even more potent. Every time I laugh watching it, the film reminds me moments later why the laughter will eventually die out.
This dual-sided title (another one of King’s wonderful wordplays) is not only shown, but felt. There’s a tension that festers early, and only builds as we discover Wilke’s real intentions, and the scope of her capabilities. Soon, we notice her mood swings, her intense anger, and the extent of her delusions. As an audience, the sinking realization arrives just as it does for Paul.
This is not good.
Her duality is deftly delivered as Annie can offer warmth and the idea of sanctuary in one hand, while the other wields a sledgehammer. Annie’s idolization of Paul is disorienting. She wants the book she feels fans deserve, not what he has written. This makes her hostile, violent, and ultimately- tragic. Both of our main actors are transformed in these roles, with a nearly hypnotic push and pull between the two. It makes it difficult to not be wrapped up in this suspense filled examination of fandom gone, very, very, wrong.
A smile and a hobbling, what’s more horrifying than that?
There’s such a perceptible anxiety that feeds the psychological cat and mouse. There’s something scary about a person that can turn on a dime as fast as Bates does (and there are certainly some sinister scenes). As a viewer you are on the edge of your seat, wondering what she’s going to do next. She becomes obsessively dependent on what Paul writes, and what happens to the title character, Misery. The demand of her brand of “art” straight from the artist, eludes to King’s own expectations that have been put on him by fans. While there’s a lot of dark comedy and Bate’s unique choice of expressions “The Cock-A-Doodie Car”, expect a growing unease to form in your stomach, and in one particular scene… jump up into your throat.
I have to give kudos to the cute bickerings between the sheriff Richard Farnsworth and Frances Sternhagen, as his wife, providing brief intermissions of comic relief. The script by William Goldman ensures that this King’s adaptation is done its justice, giving this character study its bones, with the memorable performances as the lifeblood.
Utilizing close up shots of Bate’s masterful spin on the female villainy (sometimes too much), Misery works because it hits the gas, let’s go of the wheel, and sees what happens. It’s engaging, taut, and miserable…in all the right ways.