KING'S CORNER: Misery (1990)

Updated: Nov 20

Misery - King's Corner Review


Welcome to King's Corner. A recurring series of reviews based on the film and TV adaptations of Stephen King's work, reviewed and released in order of the original source material publishing date.


Anytime a beloved franchise releases their latest movie or book there are always negative responses from either a disgruntled majority or a vocal minority. That's not to say that these opinions aren't valid. If conveyed in a reasonable fashion there is no issue with this form of criticism whatsoever but unfortunately some people like the sound of their own voice and demand that you listen to them. The growth of social media over the last decade has given these toxic elements of fandom a voice allowing them to hide behind avatars to spout all sorts of bile towards all those involved in the creative process. "I could do a better job writing this", "Why is there a woman in this role?" or the classic "I'm not a racist but that's not what that character looked like in my head when I read the book" are the mantras of these bedwetting basement dwellers who think they know best whose shrill cries for attention do nothing but irritate. Throwing out their "hot takes" into the wild, their arguments lack any substance and are usually laced with misogyny, homophobia or racism. To think that this is a phenomenon purely tied to the internet age is foolhardy however as these kinds of views have always existed and had an influence over Stephen King's 1987 novel ‘Misery’.


Director: Rob Reiner

Starring: Kathy Bates, James Caan, Richard Farnsworth, Frances Sternhagen, Lauren Bacall


Written by: William Goldman

Produced by: Andrew Scheinman, Rob Reiner

Cinematography by: Barry Sonnenfeld

Original Score by: Marc Shaiman


Synopsis:

After a famous author is rescued from a car crash by a fan of his novels, he comes to realize that the care he is receiving is only the beginning of a nightmare of captivity and abuse.

Thoughts:

According to Stephenking.com the origins of ‘Misery’ stem from a transatlantic flight from New York to London. Around this time King had read a story by Evelyn Waugh called ‘The Man Who Loved Dickens’ which was about a man being held prisoner by a tribe in South America. During his captivity he reads the stories of Charles Dickens to the chief who falls in love with the author's work. It posed the question to King, what if the man being held captive was Dickens himself? During the flight he dozed off and had a nightmare which would form the basic outline for ‘Misery’. In his book ‘On Writing’ he describes the dream being about, "a woman who held a writer prisoner and killed him, skinned him, fed his remains to her pig and bound his novel with human skin". It left such an impression that when he woke up he jotted down as much as possible about the dream onto a napkin. In London, King stayed at the Brown Hotel. Jetlagged and unable to sleep he asked the concierge if there was somewhere he could write. They obliged by setting him up at an old desk and that night King wrote 16 pages believing it would only amount to being a 30,000 word story when in fact it would eventually become a 370 page novel. The next day the concierge informed him the table belonged to Rudyard Kipling who died from a stroke at that very desk.



Whilst this fateful flight formed the basis for ‘Misery’, its origins stretch further back to 1984 with the release of ‘The Eyes of the Dragon’. A novel which was rejected by many fans since it was an epic fantasy story that was light on the kind of horror that made him a household name. Just as Paul Sheldon was chained to a bed in Annie Wilkes' house, so too did King feel like he was becoming chained to the horror genre. One of King's most personal novels, it was a huge success when it was released in 1987 with one of the biggest accolades tied to the novel was it being the first winner of the the first Bram Stoker Award in the novel category.


Despite this success an adaptation of the novel did not follow quickly with King being very protective of the rights of the book given his personal connection to it but with many King novels that made the transition from page to screen it was a case of the book falling into the right hands at the right time. Those hands belonged to film producer Andrew Scheinman who picked up the novel at an airport before a long flight. A coincidence as he had helped Rob Reiner get ‘Stand By Me’ (based on the King novella The Body) off the ground through production company Castle Rock Entertainment. Scheinman loved the book and was surprised that no one had acquired the rights to it. He approached King about potentially adapting it but King told him that he could only have the rights if Rob Reiner directed or (at the very least) produced it. Reiner accepted the directorial duties and reunited with his ‘Princess Bride’ screenwriter William Goldman to adapt the novel for the big screen.


For the most part ‘Misery’ is a two-hander so it is vital that the casting of injured author Paul Sheldon and his number one fan Annie Wilkes was spot on. Reiner had made it abundantly clear that for the role of the star author he wanted a big name. The likes of Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson and Harrison Ford amongst many others turned down the role before James Caan accepted it after a recommendation from the casting department. Caan found it amusing that Reiner would cast him in a film where he would spend most of the time in bed as he always considered himself to be an energetic performer. He wasn't used to playing a reactionary character but he pulls it off wonderfully in the film hiding his obvious fear and uncertainty from an obsessive who could turn on him at any second. It works so well through Reiner's use of close ups on Caan as his thin veneer of calm could (and eventually does) shatter at any second. Even in his breathing you pick up the desperation of his situation as he is literally writing for his life.

Opposite him is Annie Wilkes, a lonely and psychotic fan whose life revolves around the Misery Chastain series of novels. When it came to casting the iconic role the likes of Jessica Lange and Barbra Streisand turned down the role until William Goldman recommended Kathy Bates based on her work on Broadway. At the audition Reiner knew straight away she was the only person for the role after she read a single line dialogue containing her character's yokel-like colloquialisms. We are first introduced to Annie Wilkes when she gives Paul the kiss of life, rescuing him from the wreckage of his car accident. As he slips in and out of consciousness he hears the chilling line, "I'm your number one fan" before the character comes into focus. The first clear shot of her is looking up at her looking down into the camera which immediately triggers concern in the audience as the expression on Bate's face indicates that she has ownership over Paul and he is going to be at her whim much like the audience throughout the film.



Bates won an Oscar for her performance in 1991 and with good cause. She absolutely commands the screen anytime she appears. She is hilarious, terrifying and unhinged in the best ways possible making it clear to see why her performance is one of the best on screen portrayals of any of King's characters. Initially you buy into the warmth of her character as she cares for Paul, even though you are suspicious of her. Your suspicions are confirmed whenever she goes off on something minor like the profanity in Paul's untitled manuscript or having to get Paul a certain type of paper to write a new Misery novel on which is humorous. The comedic aspects soon become overwhelmed by the horror in knowing Annie is capable of something terrible thanks to her untreated mental health issues. It would be very easy to write off her character as a complete monster but Goldman's script manages to evoke a sense of sympathy towards her. The prime example being when she talks about the rain sometimes giving her the blues. The sullen manner in which Bates delivers her lines knowing that Paul will never love her the way she loves him is quite sad despite all of the terrible things she has done (and will do) to him. In the book ‘Stephen King at the Movies’, Bates' performance is perfectly summed up by Reiner who said, "there was something both innocent and primal about her, as there was about Annie".

Although it is mostly a two-hander the roles of Sheriff Buster (played by Richard Farnsworth) and his wife Deputy Virginia (played by Frances Sternhagen) cannot be underplayed. The pair are enhanced in the screen adaptation compared to the novel as the sheriff plays a more deductive role in studying Sheldon's books to figure out what happened to him. Collectively they add a lot of heart to the film through their innocent bickering which is a credit to Goldman's script. In the midst of the cold isolation of the snow ridden farm of Annie Wilkes the pair add a lot of warmth to the film.


Prior to taking the helm of the film Rob Reiner had directed the likes of ‘This is Spinal Tap’, ‘Stand By Me’ and ‘When Harry Met Sally’ so the idea of him directing a psychological horror was a curious one. It was a case of him entering uncharted territory but it was a challenge he gladly (and successfully) met. Although the interactions between Paul and Annie which form most of the film can be attributed to Goldman's terrific script, the manner in which Reiner shoots these scenes with an emphasis on close ups helps build the bubbling tension between the two. In preparation for the film Reiner said, "I studied every Alfred Hitchcock movie, ‘Diabolique’, everything I could get my hands on to understand the grammar cinematically, of making a film like that." Those studies paid off as evidenced in the scenes where Paul is in a race against time to explore Annie's house to try and find a way to escape. The cherry on the cake for Reiner's attempt to pay homage to the legendary director is that he gives himself an obligatory Hitchcock cameo as a helicopter pilot.

Eventually Paul's trips around the house are discovered by Annie leading to the most memorable scene in the film, the hobbling. Recently ranked at number 52 in Shudder's 101 scariest moments, it is an example of every aspect of filmmaking syncing together perfectly to make something truly shocking and wince inducing. It starts with Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata gently playing in the background as Paul awakens to find he is strapped to the bed and can't move, setting the audience on edge. Annie tells Paul she knows he's been out of the room and as Paul tries to play it off she reveals the knife he was hiding. From here she takes out a block of wood placing it between his feet and tells him about the barbaric practice of hobbling which was used on slaves of the diamond mines of South Africa. Paul's desperation grows with ours as he pleads with Annie but she proceeds unperturbed. She produces a sledgehammer, shatters both ankles and in a near post orgasmic manner tells him that she loves him. It is a perfect alignment of editing, sound design, special effects, music, shot composition and performance that cements its place as being one of the most memorable moments in all of horror history making its ranking of 52 feel like an injustice.



Just when Paul is at his lowest we come to the conclusion when he decides to burn the latest Misery novel he wrote under duress to get back at Annie once and for all. It is a real crowd pleasing confrontation where Paul does literally everything in his power to kill Annie including eye gouging, typewriter bludgeoning and even suffocation with charred paper. He eventually gets the better of her when her head cracks off the side of the typewriter killing her instantly and we share in Paul's relief that his terrible ordeal is now over. Some time later we catch up with him in New York during a business meeting with his agent Marcia (played by the legendary Lauren Bacall) where he plays down the idea of writing his experiences with Annie Wilkes. A waitress approaches and it is Annie but it is all in Paul's head showing that although he may have killed her he will never escape the hold she had on his mind.


According to the book ‘Stephen King: A Complete Exploration of his Work, Life and Influences’, King sees ‘Misery’ as a love letter to his fans and to an extent I agree with him in terms of the reasonable members of the public but the obsessives of the world, the likes of Mark Chapman can show how toxic fandom can be a very dangerous thing. For me ‘Misery’ (now more than ever) is a warning about these kinds of fans in terms of how their sense of entitlement over various properties must be challenged and called out. Their obsessive nature in protecting something they feel they own is misguided nonsense and to an extent also tragic. We must take care because behind a faceless avatar or fake username is an Annie Wilkes waiting to strike in the name of being your number one fan.


Verdict: ️½


- Joseph McElroy


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