MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Psychological Thriller/ Stars: James Caan, Kathy Bates, Richard Farnsworth, Frances Sternhagen, Lauren Bacall, Graham Jarvis, J. T. Walsh/ Runtime: 107 minutes
I feel it is safe to start this review off by admitting something to you dear reader: when it comes to authors whose works I treasure, I am quite fond of the works of one Stephen King. By overly fond though, I mean that, in my all too brief time in this world, I have managed to read the vast majority of what this master of horror and suspense has chosen to bless us with including short stories that I feel are some of the finest ever and definitely comparable to ones penned by such writing dignitaries as Lovecraft, Chambers, and Koontz to name but a few. Yet King, despite what many people may think, does not just write about horror though everything he does choose to write about does possess quite the pitch black, twisted, and macabre tone to it. Yet it is that distinct brand of kookiness that makes both his tales and what they are about so dark and yet so relatable at the same time. Indeed a good chunk of why King has been so popular for so long is because within all the terrifying situations at the heart of his stories, there is a dash of humanity also found within as well. Indeed the characters, their misadventures, their aspirations, and the crushing of those desires under the boot of the world through varying sets of circumstances is how this iconic author has been able to get in a reader’s mind which then gives him the chance to fully unnerve and terrify the heck out of us. With all of that being said, I feel that you should know dear reader that the film I am reviewing today 1990’s Misery is the rare version of a story by King that is enthralling both as literature and film. I say this because it might have been a tad bit easier to adapt this one than say Children of the Corn because there is nothing otherworldly about this one and 80-85% of it is set in one location. In fact, the reason the novel and film are so regarded is the fact that despite the constraints placed on it, they are still able to develop the characters extremely well. Yet for all the pathos, brutal, and psychological angles to the terror that are present, they are there because they are tied to the performances being given by James Caan and Kathy Bates. Yes film helmer Rob Reiner does, from a filmmaking perspective, do a solid job, but this is one where the work in front of the camera all but walks away with the film. Suffice it to say then that Misery truly is one, well, miserable situation that you, the viewer will find yourself riveted by time and time again.
The plot is as follows: Misery is the story of a man by the name of Paul Sheldon. Mr. Sheldon, we quickly learn, is an extraordinary success in the literary world thanks in no small part to a series of romance novels with a heroine by the name of Misery Chastain which have all been runaway hits and made him a fair penny or two along the way. When out story opens however, we learn that Paul has gotten exasperated with writing this series and is deciding to work on a novel that, in his eyes, is a much more “legit piece of work”. Thus, and upon completion of the manuscript for this novel, we see Paul head out from a locale known as Silver Creek Lodge and head down a mountain road in the middle of a dangerous snowstorm in order to get his agent the manuscript. Things soon go from bad to worse when the snowstorm results in Paul getting in a car accident which results in the car landing in a snowdrift and Paul coming into possession of a pair of broken legs, one dislocated shoulder, various other injuries, and quite possibly a partridge and pear tree (joking, joking). Thankfully (?) for our intrepid hero, a local woman by the name of Annie Wilkes finds the wreckage and pulls Paul out of the car before taking him to her remote house and begins nursing him back to health. Upon coming to, Paul is quite thankful for her care and soon learns that she is a nurse and loyal fan who is simply just happy that he is there in her home. Unfortunately for Paul it appears, according to Annie, that due to the storm both roads and telephones are inoperative at the moment so she can’t quite tell anyone where he is right away. Of course I guess I should also mention that this whole time Annie has been quite the polite and considerate host even if she does seem just a tad bit lonely. I bring this up dear reader because, upon discovering and reading Paul’s manuscript which she also pulled out of the wreckage, Annie goes completely off the rails, becomes quite upset, and also expresses her overwhelming disappointment at just how much swearing there is within the page. Yet it is when she reads the latest Misery Chastain book that we see Annie go completely nuts since, unbeknownst to her, Paul has killed off Misery (her favorite character in ALL of fiction) and feels personally stabbed in the back. To that end, we see Annie use Paul’s condition against him in order to ensure that he not only destroys his brand-new manuscript, but to also conjure up a new story in which Miss Misery is brought to the land of the living. Thus as Annie’s behavior continues to become more and more both violent and deranged, our poor helpless hero finds himself struggling to go along with her wishes as far as his limits will allow whilst also attempting to figure out a means of escape from this cockadoodie nightmare….
Now I feel you should know dear reader that this film is a part of a novel subgenre of the horror/thriller realm where we witness a character become trapped in a small or desolate area and then spend the rest of the tale trying to get the heck out of there. Indeed it’s a subgenre that I myself have been intrigued by ever since I first read “The Pit and the Pendulum” and it’s also worth noting that Stephen King himself has made a pair of stories that also feature this dilemma and both have been adapted to the screen: “Misery,” and a story by the name of “Gerald’s Game” where a woman spends darn near the entirety of the story literally handcuffed to a bed in the middle of nowhere (trust me: 50 Shades of Grey it ain’t). Indeed in a tale like this, not only is everything off in some way, but our hero must become used to an odd new set of guidelines that all put a sinister spin on normal, everyday life. Such is the case here dear reader. I mean to the vast majority of us, a house is a everyday locale where you wake up every morning, have some coffee, go about your day, and come back to every night (unless its 2020 and then you’re stuck at home all day). Be that as it may be, the idea that a house could also become a jail or prison is one which certainly has the potential to frighten all of us. To that end, tales like this one have the feeling and vibe of a nightmare if it was one where that thing you are afraid of most of all seemed like it was always on the cusp of occurring. Indeed, I would honestly say that this is a film which has a lot more in common than potentially anything else with a suspense drama from 1962 known as “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” (a film incidentally I also heartily recommend checking out when you get the chance). Indeed I say this because the basic narrative construct of a disabled individual stuck in the home of a woman who has gone completely off the rails and puts our protagonist through brutal torture of both the mind and body even as nearly no one else is aware that the protagonist is still around is the same. Yet in the older film, the motivation for doing so was due to sibling envy and old wounds refusing to heal like they should. This film on the other hand chooses to say something different about the price of fame by having the captive be a writer of some renown and their kidnapper an unhinged and obsessive fan. I mean, with an exception or 2, Annie Wilkes is not a sadistic person like Bette Davis in “Baby Jane” was. Rather, she is a sad, lonely, and mentally disturbed person who has by a fluke of nature been given their greatest wish and now seeks to insert the only person she feels a connection to in this world into their delusion-riddled life and keep them there no matter what the cost. Is it chilling? Absolutely. Which is more frightening? That I will let you figure out for yourself because everyone’s answer is different dear reader.
Now in terms of performances everyone does wonderful work, but of course the work done by our 2 leads is nothing short of dynamic. This starts with James Caan who gives a solid turn here as protagonist Paul Sheldon. Indeed Caan has always as an actor had a kind of old school toughie vibe to him so when you see this guy stuck in bed or a wheelchair and with his legs and body busted up there is an aura of crippled masculinity to him. Yet it’s not the kind of crippled masculinity where it’s obnoxious and the guy it’s attached to is a real jerk, but in the manner where you legit feel terrible for the guy and his plight. Making matters worse is the fact that we know that if the damage to his legs was limited to just one he’d have been able to get out this scenario long before a lot of the stuff that occurs in this film goes down. Yet by making it both legs, this results in the character being completely helpless and as a result it makes the character someone who is worthy of our empathy and Caan plays that extremely brilliantly. Even better than that however, is just how the character manages to actually get a degree of craftiness to himself after a while and that is an attribute that Caan handles with skill and confidence. Indeed with an actor like James Caan there is always a razor-thin line where he is serious and yet at the same time either comical or just about to find a way to make you chuckle or smile yourself and in this film it is no different. Indeed his casting truly is one of the finest, in my opinion, casting choices ever made for a Stephen King adaptation. Of course though this just brings me to perhaps the most iconic performance from this film: Kathy Bates as Anne Wilkes and all I have to say is: WOW. I mean be it in this or the wild and crazy parts she has played in Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story among other work, she is a truly versatile actress in every sense of the word. I mean one moment she can be this sweet slightly dotty lady and then the next minute some kind of switch is flipped from within and now you have this cold, merciless, brutal psychopath. Yet although we know we are supposed to see the character of Annie Wilkes as the latter category when all is said and done there is still, intriguingly, an aspect of her that is still worthy of our sympathy to some degree. A fact that I feel is only possible because yes Annie does these terrible things, but at the same time she is perhaps the loneliest person on the face of the Earth and when a person is that lonely well then who knows what they’re capable of? To that end, it should be noted that Bates manages to do a phenomenal job of really showing us just how disturbed her character is and not once does it really ever feel forced or over the top in any way. Heck even when she comes up words like “cockadoodie“, which I challenge you to hear and not either laugh or feel the urge to at least chuckle, the terrifying side of her is always in the room too. Suffice it to say then that Bates manages to drag us, whether we like it or not, into the odd and darkly humorous components of this truly terrifying character whilst also ensuring that her psychotic side is never forgotten for too long thus giving one true nightmare of a performance that most assuredly will stand the test of time as a truly fine performance.
All in all Misery is not just one of the more sublime examples of how to conjure up a riveting adaptation of a Stephen King story, but also one of the most riveting examples of Bates and Caan’s talents as thespians and Rob Reiner’s gifts as a film helmer. Indeed Reiner, with the aid of a terrific and game crew, manages to milk realistic suspense through the little things sprinkled throughout the film, but also simultaneously allows the film to have quite the macabre and dry sense of humor about everything going on to our poor hero. I mean this is a film that feels more like one of those psychotic women films you see on Lifetime if said film was helmed by Hitchcock and the source material, of course, stayed Stephen King. Yes you can also infer, based on the above statement, that there is something very Hitchcockian about this cinematic outing and I honestly feel like the master of suspense would have most likely considered it an honor to bring this film to life if he had been given the chance to do so during his lifetime. Indeed Misery is eerie, visceral, violent when it needs to be and the thrills and chills given are ones given to us where we are placed in the shoes of our heroes except for perhaps one where you will definitely wish to keep your feet to yourself. Ultimately, yes there might be a group of films that all are Hitchcockian in nature like this one, but at the end of the day and out of all of them there is only one Misery and that is all we, and our ankles, have ever needed in our cock-a-doodie lives. On a scale of 1-5 I give Misery a solid 4 out of 5.