Date Posted: 09/08/20
Based upon the Stephen King book of the same name Misery is a 1990 psychological thriller which stars James Caan and Kathy Bates as Paul Sheldon and Annie Wilkes respectively. The supporting cast includes Richard Farnsworth as Buster, Frances Sternhagen as Virginia with Lauren Bacall as Marcia Sindell. At the time Kathy Bates was an unknown actress and received an Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Wilkes in the 63rd Academy Awards. To date, Misery is the only film based upon a work of Stephen King to win an Oscar.
Misery is one of those films that I knew quite a bit about before I went into it, and always wanted to get round to watching it but never had the time. I was familiar various parodies and wondered if it, like The Shining, would rather lose its impact because I had seen The Simpsons do a Halloween Special based upon The Shining and it rather removed any fear I might have had of it. Family Guy had done Misery so I did think that I might just be setting myself up to watch something unintentionally funny as I had seen Stewie as Annie Wilkes and Brian as Paul Sheldon.
If you are unfamiliar with the book, film or any of the parodies then let me explain what is going on...
Paul Sheldon is a famous novelist who found success writing as series of Victorian romantic novels based around the character of Misery Chastain. He has, however, grown weary of that particular series and has moved on to write more serious works. Choosing to isolate himself when he writes, he completes his first post-Misery book and whilst on the way to New York to share it is his Publisher he is caught in a blizzard. He loses to control of his car, and crashes down an embankment where he loses consciousness.
He wakes up in a bed with a woman tending to his injuries who identifies herself as a nurse named Annie Wilkes, his self-proclaimed “number one fan” and they are currently in her house isolated out in the mountains. Paul was seriously wounded in the crash, breaking both legs and dislocating his shoulder. She has popped his shoulder back in and put splints on his legs to help them heal. Annie informs him that the roads are blocked by the blizzard but once they are clear she will take him to nearest hospital. In the meantime she will nurse him back to health as he is bedridden.
She discovers his new work in his bag and asks if she can read it. Out of gratitude for saving him, Paul agrees. Later Annie reveals that she didn’t like the profanity in the story and grows angry spilling the soup she was feeding to him on his bed, before apologising for her outburst.
Meanwhile Paul’s publisher and family is growing concerned about his absence. Local Sherriff Buster starts as search but once the car is found, the State Police begin to believe that Paul must have crawled from the wreckage but died in the blizzard. Buster, however, doesn’t believe that so continues the search on his own.
As Paul recovers Annie tells him that she is able to go to town but cannot go any further because the main roads are still blocked. On the way she passes the local Sherriff but does not stop to tell them she found Paul Sheldon or that he is alive. She picks up Paul’s latest Misery novel and once she returns home excitedly tells him that she is going to read it cover to cover immediately.
Annie reads the novel and flies into a fit of rage when she discovers that Misery dies at the end of the story. She screams at Paul calling him a murderer and tells him that she has not told anyone that he is there, as well as the fact that everyone thinks he is dead. Scared that his saviour is in fact a mentally unstable woman, Paul struggles to figure out how to escape her house when he cannot walk.
Annie’s obsession with Misery takes a more bizarre turn when she forces Paul to burn his new manuscript, and tells him that he is going to write a sequel to his last Misery novel in which Misery is resurrected.
With Annie’s personality shifting on a dime, Paul’s horror escalates as he realises that if he does not write the book she wants then he is not going to escape the house alive...
Unlike The Simpsons parody of The Shining that ruined the actual Shining movie, none of the parodies I had seen of Misery were able to take anything away from the tense atmosphere of the film. I can easily understand why Kathy Bates won the Academy Award because she switches from caring, nurturing and kind hearted to angry, violent and unreasonable before going back again. Paul is initially grateful to her for saving his life, yet he begins to realise that she is far more dangerous than he could have ever thought. Wilkes puts Paul on a pedestal calling him a genius and the greatest writer of all time, which appears to just be relatively harmless hero-worship, but as time goes on he realises just how obsessive and twisted she is.
As the film progresses Paul is able find a way out of his locked room and discovers evidence that Wilkes might be a serial killer as numerous children died whilst under her care at several hospitals. She was not prosecuted due to lack of evidence. Due to his injuries Paul is practically dead from the waist down with his broken legs effectively dead weights, so whilst Annie is not that physically imposing, she is more than a match for the bed-ridden Paul.
The fear of the film comes from Annie’s unpredictable mood swings; she can be happy and almost child-like in excitement, then flies into blinding rages, and suffers from bouts of extreme depression. She has made it abundantly clear that if something happens to her then Paul will die because no one knows he is there. The hopelessness of his situation hangs over the film and even where there are moments he glimpses possible rescue, those chances are taken from him. Annie is not someone that can be reasoned with because she suffers from such extreme emotional instability with the smallest thing setting her off.
Even when Paul does start to write the book that Annie wants she rejects his first efforts because she doesn’t think that Misery’s return is believable. As a result she forces him to begin the book again. Due to her mental issues it is quite clear that Annie believes Misery to be a real person and the stories have to therefore be realistic in her mind or she grows angry and violent.
The “hobbling” scene is one that I again was familiar with but in the context of the film I am not really sure why she does it. By this point in the film Paul has been able to pick the lock on his door and venture round the house in his wheelchair several times, naturally he cannot actually go anywhere as the doors are all locked. He does realise that the only way he will escape is if he kills Annie, so he hides a knife in his bed, unfortunately for him things go awry before he can enact his plan. I think as punishment Annie then hobbles him, to prevent him from moving around the house, but his legs have been dead weights the whole time anyway so re-crippling him doesn’t really do much to stop him moving around. I wonder if the reason it doesn’t make much sense is because it is Annie’s delusional mind that has decided that this is the best course of action. It is quite a brutal scene which expertly knows how to show just enough so that you are drawing air through your teeth when watching it.
I am also not really sure why Paul is so reluctant to burn his new manuscript. I have written several novels as well as dozens of short stories during my time on this planet, and I could tell you the gist of all of them. I also make notes as I write so if I have a sudden idea I don’t forget about it. As a result if I had written a new novel and someone forced me to destroy it, only the physical copy would be lost, the mental copy would still be in my head. I am aware that my mighty alien brain is far more advanced than the minds of you primitive humans, but come on. Surely Paul has notes about the story he’s written. Yes, they do point out that he doesn’t believe in making copies as he is superstitious but the story was in his mind to begin with and he just put it on paper. I fail to see why he is so concerned about burning it when he can write it again at a later time once he has done what Annie wants.
I am also not initially sure if Annie was intending to simply nurse him back to health and let him go. Not telling the authorities could have been dismissed as her just wanting to spend some more time in the company of her idol, there is nothing necessarily sinister about that. It does become clear though that by the end Annie has gone off the deep end and the only thing keeping Paul alive is the legacy that Misery’s return will give to the world which can only be done if he is able to finish the book.
My niggles were really only that, niggles. The film is expertly directed and shows how terrifying Annie Wilkes can be with the tremendous acting by Bates who is able to switch between all of Annie’s emotions in an instant. The depth that Caan gives to Paul Sheldon also evolves from gratitude to genuine terror as he begins to realise that he is trapped in the home of a deranged lunatic.
Misery is easily one of the better adaptations of a Stephen King work, and whilst I have not read any of his books, I have seen numerous film or TV adaptations which range from bad to laughably bad. Misery demonstrates what an excellent cast with great acting talent guided by a director that knows exactly what he is trying to do can achieve can do. I am happy to give the film a Thumbs Up and urge anyone who has not seen it to track it down. Tense psychological thrillers are hard thing to do well and Misery s definitely one that does what it sets out to do incredibly well.
8/10 – A great and tense film that is just as good today as it was in 1990. The isolation of the house and the mental illnesses of the nurse turned obsessive and dangerous fan keeps the tension at breaking point. Both Caan and Bates are magnificent and like I said I can easily understand why Bates won an Academy Award for the wolf in sheep’s clothing that is Annie Wilkes.