When I first started this blog, one of my main aims was to complete what many believe to be the Big Three: The Silence of the Lambs, Psycho and The Shining. So far, it’s two out of three. But only three psychological horrors really fails to whet the appetite, even if they’re some of the best. So, let’s expand the horizons, people! And where better to start than with Misery?
The concept is simple, yet great. A best selling author, Paul Sheldon (James Caan), crashes his car in the snow as he attempts to take his newest book to his literary agent (Lauren Bacall). He seems left for dead, until his ‘number one fan’ Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) saves him in the storm. Luck seems to have hit Paul – Annie is a caring nurse, who believes he is an incredible genius. But things soon head downhill when Paul realises he may be staying for longer than expected…
Adapted from a Stephen King book, you can see how Misery is a comment from King about the price of success. For those out there hoping for fame and celebrity status, be careful for what you wish for. This films reminds us how easy it is for admiration to pervert into obsession.
Misery is a true horror in my opinion – there are no monsters, supernatural events or bloodthirsty robots. Oh no, none of that. Just one of the scariest villains in film history. Really, she shouldn’t be. She seems like one of the sweetest and kindest carers some one could wish for, even if she appears a little quirky. You can see the pain Wilkes goes through – having to torture the love of her life when he disobeys, her tormented past creating the sadist that she is. In fact, Kathy Bates would occasionally break out into tears when trying to relive Annie’s past.
Yet, Annie is perhaps one of most horrible characters we’ve ever encountered on the silver screen. It’s so hard not to hate her, especially towards the end, even if it’s more of a ‘love to hate’ rather than plain hatred. Mixed in with those oh-so-sudden jump cuts, she’s not someone I’d ever fancy encountering. Those jump cuts should be credited to the one and only Rob Reiner, of This Is Spinal Tap and Stand By Me (another King adaptation), and he definitely knows how to draw out a performance.
Despite being a drama cum thriller cum horror, this is a really scintillating character study. Partly that’s because Kathy Bates steals the show in such spectacular fashion, but also because of the complex and wonderful depth of Wilkes. You can’t help but feel sympathetic to her because she’s so clearly out of her mind, but, I can assure you, she often takes advantage of our sympathy. And just as soon as it’s there, it’s gone.
I think it’s interesting that so many of the best psychological horrors always have this one thing in common: fascinating antagonists. Obviously the protagonists are important, but just think where Psycho would be without Norman Bates, or The Silence of the Lambs without Hannibal Lecter, or Se7en without John Doe. They literally carry these films (even with incredibly limited screen time), and Misery is no different.
Bates is ridiculously good, and while she should be praised, so should the Academy. “What, that Academy, you mean?” I hear you saying. I know – this perhaps a little out of kilter with my usual opinions, but in 1991, Bates received the Oscar for Best Actress, and this is perhaps one of the only instances where they actually had the guts to give it out to someone who deserved it. I can’t really think of many other instances where there seemed to be so much going against the eventual winner – an actress in one of her first leading roles, in a horror film. But she certainly deserved it.
Caan is also shockingly good. It came at an interesting time in his career – he had really seemed to peter out of existence after the likes of The Godfather and Thief, but Misery was his big resurrection. It wasn’t long before his ascension to heaven again, but we deserved to enjoy his time among us mere mortals. What he gets right is a relatability. We can’t help but imagine ourselves in that position. He’s tired of writing saccharine romance novels, and wants to be taken seriously as an author. That’s always the biggest mistake. Just take the money and leave!
It’s easy to imagine Misery as a play – it could simply be condensed down to two characters in a single location of the bedroom. I had this qualm when watching Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, but Misery seems to be able to get away with it thanks to some great directing, some great screenwriting and also the inclusion of Richard Farnsworth as Buster, an amusing and Fargo-esque police officer. Buster being written in may not have been at the front of everyone’s minds in production, but he ends up being vital.
Before I wrap this up, I wanted to give some warm words to the secondary antagonist of Misery. The snow storm. It creates a great atmosphere, and films with snow in them just seem to have a way about them. Not a bad quiz idea, in fact…
So, Misery. Perhaps one of the best films of the 90s, they can give thanks to excellent acting, captivating characters and a whole lot of snow. A strong recommendation from me, and definitely not a bad way to spend two hours of your time, as long as you don’t mind incredibly disturbing nurses.
Misery – 8 out of 10