When one thinks of the sizable output of hyper prolific author Stephen King, usually his brick sized tomes like the epic Dark Tower series or apocalyptic super-novel The Stand come to mind. King has no qualms playing with a broad canvass that encompasses such massive themes as the very nature of good and evil but it’s also important to note how adept he is on a vastly smaller scale too.
The most notorious of these is Misery, mostly a two hander between an injured writer and his chaotically insane biggest fan which seemed a shoo-in for a boozy of an adaptation but director Rob Reiner (mostly known for comedies like This Is Spinal Tap and When Harry Met Sally although he’s waded deep into Stephen King waters with the magnificent Stand By Me) pulled out a blinder here, not only creating a taunt, nerve shredding thriller but also a blackly amusing commentary on fandom and the act of writing itself.
Paul Sheldon is not happy about the way his writing career has gone. Distainful of his bestselling series of Victorian romance novels dealing with the melodramatic existence of Misery Chastain, he’s desperate to kill off his reoccurring character in favour of writing a book more personal to him. Upon finishing it in a hotel room way up in the snowy Colorado mountains he hops into his car to deliver it to his publisher and promptly drives into a blizzard which forces him off the road into a nasty crash.
Dragged from his vehicle by Annie Wilkes, a robust and earnest former nurse who lives in her remote cabin. She also happens to be Paul Sheldon’s biggest fan who counts the Misery books as deeply personal to her and she gets busy nursing him back to health through a dislocated shoulder and two horrifically broken legs.
All seems fine until it seems worryingly apparent that Annie may not be playing with a full deck… In fact, she may be nuttier than squirrel shit and the crippled writer starts to fall foul of her devastating rage fits and extreme mood swings.
Things go from bad to destination: fucked when Annie learns that Paul has killed off her favorite character in his last Misery novel and she demands that he burns his new manuscript and get to work on resurrecting Misery in a new novel.
As he starts clacking away at the anvil sized typewriter she buys for him Paul realises he needs to get the hell out of dodge before one of Annie wild, unpredictable temper tantrums causes damage he isn’t going to walk (or wheel) away from.
Unlike the raging rants of Annie Wilkes herself, Reiner is wise enough to keep things subtle, keeping a very steady hand on the wheel (steadier than Paul at any rate) until the film needs to deploy the cock-a-doodie weapon of mass destruction that is the Oscar winning portrayal that Kathy Bates unleashes upon the film. She is, quite frankly, magnificent in a role that could have easily spun off into ludicrous overacting but instead (not unlike Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector) keeps a hold on the more extreme aspects of Ms. Wilkes child like personality until it’s absolutely necessary (for example she is perfectly calm during the notorious and fantastically wince inducing “hobbling” scene as it’s far creepier than her popping an ankle with a sledgehammer like a breadsticks than it would be if she did it in a blind rage). However, equal praise must go to James Caan – essentially the straight man to Bates’ hurricane of non-profanity – who, as the put upon and repeatedly broken Sheldon, puts out an impressive amount of vulnerability for the guy who once played Sonny Corleone and helps sells the overall concept beautifully.
But it’s the aforementioned direction by Rob Reiner and the script by William Goldstein that impresses, actually improving on King’s original prose by interestingly dulling down the movie’s sharper horror edges – in the book Annie straight up saws Paul’s foot off instead of the (somehow) more subtle ankle breaking and let’s not underplay the scene of Wilkes running over someone’s head with a lawnmower- and focusing more of Paul’s reaction to Annie’s perversion of the craft of writing and the fiendish red herring of Richard Farnsworth’s bloodhound police chief.
The only Stephen King adaption to nail a major Oscar (nope, not even Stand By Me or Shawshank Redemption got one) it’s one of the cream of the crop, scary, funny and loaded with crazy amounts of nerve jangling suspense that went a long way to giving the horror film some much needed respectability in the dark days of fright flicks in the early nineties.
If somehow this movie has slipped through the cracks for you, as the saying goes: Misery loves company.