Misery

“I am your number one fan.”

The Scoop: 1990 R, directed by Rob Reiner and starring James Caan, Kathy Bates, and Richard Farnsworth

Tagline: Paul Sheldon used to write for a living. Now, he’s writing to stay alive.

Summary Capsule: Writer’s block meets motivation: housebound with a certified loonie.

Justin’s Rating: A few eggshells short of an omelet

Justin’s Review: Paul Sheldon’s in deep, deep trouble, but he doesn’t know it yet. See, in most horror movies, we the audience know exactly when the characters are marching to their doom. Usually, they go in the deep woods cabin, all jocular and blissfully unaware of the string of human heads strung under the eves like macabre Christmas ornaments. But hey, we the smart audience know — because we’ve been shown — and our smarts compel us to shout at the screen. “Hey knuckle-dragger, don’t go in there! Call the police! Noooooo… don’t GIVE your shotgun to the zombie! He’s just PRETENDING to admire the fine craftsmanship! What are you thinking?”

The beauty and genius of Misery is that our protagonist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) thinks he’s been rescued from the brink of death… and so do we. Following a car crash due to the film camera being stuck right in his face, Sheldon awakes in the home of Anne, his “number one fan.” No, Sheldon isn’t an American Gigilo, he’s an author of a line of crappy romance novels that everyone adores, except for him. Now that he’s been rescued and is safely in the home of a nurse who happens to be a huge follower of the series, Sheldon’s got nothing to worry about. Right?

Right?

Perhaps you were slightly drunk when you picked this film up and didn’t notice the word “Misery” on the cover, “Stephen King” during the opening credits, and the plaque stating “Horror Videos” above your head. Sheldon couldn’t have landed in a worse place: it turns out Anne left her gourd long ago and is permanently vacationing in Delusion Land. Her slight cookieness, spouting childish words and phrases, turns to psychopathic rage when she discovers that Sheldon is killing off the protagonist in his novels. Suddenly, Sheldon — bed-bound, half doped up — is facing horror beyond belief at the hands of his captor.

Golly, ain’t Stephen King a light-hearted fellow? When you read the book or watch this film, it’s not hard to figure out where this dark premise came from. What would it be like to be a hugely popular author, bombarded by fans every day — most loving and normal, but some obsessed and oblivious — wondering what one of them might do if their obsession got carried away? Most authors might push that thought to the back of their mind, but King took that (probably) personal fear and turned it into a fascinating struggle between two forces locked in a house together. It’s downright impossible not to put yourself in Sheldon’s ruined shoes and feel the fear that grows over the course of the movie. I’d be seriously freaked out beyond belief.

Stephen King novels traditionally make crappy movies, but Misery is a happy (yet miserable) exception. Under the directorship of Rob Reiner (who also did King’s Stand By Me) and the writing talent of William Goldman (The Princess Bride), nothing gets overdone in the traditional horror fashion. Instead, we get a character study that does justice to King’s oddball people. Kathy Bates as Anne is captivating, particularly as she swings between bubbly redneck and savage Dr. Doom. Yet we mustn’t overlook Caan’s ability to act on his back for most of the film — and his desperate pleadings to Anne probably will echo in my head for the rest of my life. The rest of the cast isn’t too fat in numbers, but a special shout-out goes to Richard Farnsworth as the rascally sheriff who plods along trying to locate Sheldon.

It’s not the scariest film in the world, but you’ll squirm as you imagine yourself in Sheldon’s shoes… and trust me, you don’t want to be in his shoes. Particularly after you see what a P.O.’d Kathy Bates can do with a sledgehammer. So take it from me and the Foot Counsel (“We May Smell Bad, But You Can’t Kick Butt Without Us”), Misery is not to be ignored or trifled with.

Al’s Rating: Annie Wilkes versus Jack Torrance? No holds-barred cage match? Awesome.

Al’s Review: Look! A Stephen King story about a writer! Yes, in the tradition of Jack Torrance, Ben Mears, Mike Noonan, Bobbi Anderson, Tad Beaumont, George Stark, Mike Enslin, Morton Rainey, John Marinville, Scott Landon, and Claudia y Inez Bachman comes another King story about a Writer With a Problem. It’s a good one, one of the best, but, Steve-O, seriously, you can try on other professions from time to time. It’s okay, we won’t hold it against you.

Our woebegone wordslinger this time around is Paul Sheldon (James Caan), creator of trashy romance heroine Misery Chastain, and his Big Problem is Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), his own personal Florence Nightingale. See, Paul did a little bit of unexpected winter offroading during one of those nasty Colorado snowstorms and would likely have frozen to death in what was left of his car if not for Annie, who takes him back to her farm so he can recuperate under her care. Annie is going to take good care of him because she’s his Number One Fan. In fact, Misery Chastain is her hero and, now, her thinking gets a little bit muddy, but, as far as she’s concerned, Paul is the most brilliant writer in the world. She’s going to make sure he stays in that bed as long as he can and she’s going make sure he takes those morphine pills like clockwork. Of course, what Annie doesn’t know is that Paul’s newest book, Misery’s Child, is also his last, and Misery doesn’t get a happily ever after. Every day she gets closer to the last chapter, though, and, even in his haze, Paul’s dread begins to build as he thinks about what will happen when she does.

Misery is a great story and one of King’s best novels. By the end of movie, you’ll also say it’s a great film as well, and you won’t be wrong because the end of the film delivers as intense and Hitchcockian an experience you could ever ask for in a thriller. But the road to get there? Let’s just say there are some potholes. Put simply, the opening of Misery plods. Annie’s psychoses flip off and on like a light switch, Paul is so beat up and drugged out that he can’t do anything but lie in bed and look terrified, and Buster, the town sheriff (Richard Farnsworth), is stuck chasing his tail while trying to put together the pieces of Paul’s disappearance. I could point the finger at William Goldman’s script (though I like to believe The Princess Bride fully absolves him of any wrongdoing for the rest of his life), or maybe at Rob Reiner’s direction, or just towards some random editor asleep at the wheel, but, truthfully, I don‘t know what goes wrong during our first half. It could simply be that a guy lying in bed for sixty minutes isn’t that filmable.

No matter how much the first hour feels like a cheap cliff-notes PBS movie, though, once Paul stops playing The English Patient and gets into a wheelchair and the other shoe drops as Annie finishes Misery’s Child, this film turns to gold. With our hero now somewhat mobile and detoxed enough to keep his thoughts lucid, Paul makes a much better sparring partner for the increasingly insane Annie. He slowly and quietly amasses tools Great Escape-style and plots his flight from Annie’s grasp while learning how to feed off of and feed into her delusions to get his way. Annie herself transforms between sickeningly sweet motherly devotion, dangerous sadomasochistic insanity, and, just occasionally, some very sad moments of clarity where she seems to wrestle with the awful extent of everything she has done and knows she will do.

James Caan does an admirable job in a restrained role (both literally and figuratively), but the success of Misery really lives and dies on the performance of Kathy Bates. Even when the script is stumbling, her presentation of Annie Wilkes in all her half-cracked glory is dead-on every time. When she’s in a destructive rage, you believe it. When she’s in her so-sweet-I’m getting-diabetes thralls of delight, you believe it. When she’s bi-polar manic depressive and fingering a pistol, you believe that, too. And the fact that you believe Annie is the most important thing in the movie, because that’s what sells the character and the film as a whole. As crazy as she is, you believe her as a real person with an actual mental problem, instead of the garden variety, all purpose, Cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs psycho that too many films rely on. We recognize her. She’s that woman you can’t stand who speaks like a kindergarten teacher to everyone she meets and adopts cutesy googoocacapoopoo words for anything she doesn’t want to say, then acts absolutely horrified when everyone else doesn’t say them too. She’s the one that you look at and say “Does she do that twenty-four hours a day? Really?” Well, this film provides the answer: Yes. Yes, she does, and she’s actually a psychotic stalker who will maim you and trap you in the basement, forcing you to write novels against your will. So, you know, it’s an educational film to boot.

Misery does lag out of the gate, but, in case a decade and a half of glowing reviews isn’t enough, let me join the chorus and ask you to watch it through to the end before passing your judgment on it. By the time the credits roll, Misery has cemented itself as part of the small but beloved pantheon of enjoyable, rewatchable SK movies, and Annie Wilkes with a sledgehammer in one hand and a syringe in the other has become more terrifying than all the haunted cars and evil cymbal monkeys that King’s crazy little head can ever dream up.

Drew’s Rating: See, this is why I’m glad I don’t write anything people like.

Drew’s Review: Being a writer can be a pretty tough racket. Oh sure, on the surface it seems like a sweet gig – “work” any hours you want, scribble out whatever random crap pops into your head (snuffleupagus), and the groupies… oh my, the groupies. Ahem. But no one ever looks past all that to the dangers inherent in the profession: chair-ass, carpal tunnel syndrome, periodic confusion for a homeless person, and of course the inevitable risk that someone may like something you wrote just a little too much. Which brings us to the cautionary tale of Paul Sheldon.

Paul is one of those sissies who gets paid to write, a novelist responsible for the popular “Misery” romances. (A cheerful series, one presumes.) Dissatisfied with his oeuvre, he’s seemingly freed himself by killing off his main character (please, Paul, that didn’t work for Arthur Conan Doyle, why should you get away with it?), and has just completed the first book he’s actually proud of. But when his car overturns on his way to deliver the manuscript, badly enough that it just might be published posthumously, Paul is rescued and nursed back to health by his biggest admirer, Annie Wilkes. And oh, she just loves the Misery books soooo much! Unfortunately, in addition to poor taste in fiction, Annie is perhaps not quite all there; so when she learns that her favorite character of all time is no longer with us… well, the bedridden Paul may be in for a firsthand lesson on how writers suffer for their art.

Misery is one of those movies that burst into the public consciousness right out of the gate and has stayed there ever since… even never having seen it before, I knew the basic plot and most memorable scenes from countless spoofs and parodies. What I didn’t know was whether that would affect my enjoyment of the movie – does it ruin things to know exactly what that block of wood is for? But in fact, that leads me to the highest compliment I can pay Misery: even though there are few truly surprising moments, even though it telegraphs most of what’s going to happen (and whatever it doesn’t, you probably either know or can guess), the film still keeps you engrossed all the way through. That’s not easy to accomplish, and I give Rob Reiner and everyone involved a ton of credit for succeeding.

I don’t know much about the original novel by Stephen King, but I can tell you the screenwriters streamlined it nicely, keeping the movie flowing with no prolonged boring stretches. And the actors, what can I say — when only two people have 95% of the dialogue in a movie, it can feel repetitious and stale. But Bates and Caan are both outstanding, turning in some of the best performances of their careers. Bates in particular captures the syrupy sweet demeanor masking major psychoses and plays her part to the hilt… I guarantee you’ll never hear the phrase “cock-a-doodie” without shuddering again. (Not that you ever did.) Plus there’s the fact that, unlike every other Hollywood kidnap victim in history, Paul is actually smart. From the beginning of his ordeal, he doesn’t ignore Annie’s craziness and hope it will go away; nor, when it becomes clear exactly how nuts she is, does he sit around feeling sorry for himself and awaiting rescue. He’s extremely capable and inventive, so much so that you become invested in his escape attempts and want him to succeed, where a more passive character would elicit bored indifference. When one particular plan goes awry, I found myself cursing the sheer bad luck that led to its failure and urging him to try it again. (He didn’t.)

Like I said, writers have tough lives… in addition to everything else, there’s the omnipresent threat that one of your books might get turned into a really, really bad movie. But while Stephen King has had to confront that fear head-on more than once, I’m happy to report that this adaptation, at least, is one to be proud of. It’s far from the most macabre or outlandish of King’s tales, and I can’t speak to the film’s authenticity to the source material, but I can promise you it’s a well-acted, well-scripted piece of work that deserves your attention. Just bear in mind that if you do end up liking it, the preferred method of conveying approval is still a polite letter or a fan website. Lighter fluid remains frowned upon.

Between this lady and Don Barzini, James Caan must play the unluckiest characters ever.

Intermission!

  • It’s so cool when you can light a match with your thumb like that
  • Public officials in Colorado usually perform more than one job — maybe all of them
  • Paul stashing away the pills… frightening in its implications
  • A video of When Harry Met Sally (also directed by Rob Reiner) is visible in the general store.
  • The “guy who went mad in a hotel nearby” is a reference to The Shining, also based on a novel written by Stephen King.
  • J.T. Walsh as the police chief
  • Rob Reiner as the helicopter pilot
  • Paul Sheldon’s novels are published by Viking, the same publishing company that published Stephen King’s books at that time.
  • Paul’s typewriter is supposedly missing an “n”. However, in close-ups of the typing, the “n” is typed along with everything else.
  • Misery the pig?
  • Annie voted for Nixon?
  • The pictures of Kathy Bates in all those newspaper clippings? Does she look like Rosie O’Donnell or what?
  • The Shining reference?
  • The Love Connection circa 1990? Mullets, mullets, mullets.
  • Using the hairpin as a lockpick? Does everyone but me just happen to know how this works? (Tommutate writes in: “The newly written book he had on him when he crashed – the one Annie made him burn – it was a book on crime. He knew how to pick locks, because he had been researching crime.”)
  • Paul weightlifting with the typewriter?
  • “We’ll find his body in the first thaw unless the animals get to him first.” Sort of a graphic police statement, no?
  • “Don Pah Rig Non?”
  • Love that juxtaposition of the film’s title with the sweet, sweet refrain of “Shotgun” by Junior Walker and the All Stars.
  • Me: No, don’t slam on them… pump the brakes! Pump them!
    Lady Luck: He didn’t pump them.
  • Kathy Bates reportedly was disappointed that a scene was cut in which she kills a young police officer by rolling over him repeatedly with a lawnmower (this was in the novel). Director Rob Reiner was afraid that the audience would laugh at it.
  • At the time Rob Reiner approached Stephen King to purchase the movie rights to Misery, it was the only story King had not yet sold. He considered Misery his most personal novel and did not want to see it ruined by a subpar film like so many other adaptations of his work. He only agreed to let Reiner have the film because of how impressed he had been with his work in Stand By Me. Before casting James Caan, the role of Paul Sheldon was reportedly first offered to Jack Nicholson, William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Michael Douglas, Harrison Ford, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman, Robert Redford, and Warren Beatty.
  • According to Annie’s placement of them on her mantle, the Misery Chastain novels are, in order: Misery, Misery’s Love, Misery’s Search, Misery’s Trial, Misery’s Challenge, Misery’s Quest, Misery’s Triumph, Misery’s Dilemma, and Misery’s Child. The book Paul writes for her, called Misery’s Return, would be number ten in the series.

Groovy Quotes

Annie Wilkes: What’s the ceiling that dago painted?
Paul Sheldon: The Sistine Chapel?

Annie Wilkes: It’s the swearing, Paul. It has no nobility.
Paul Sheldon: These are slum kids, I was a slum kid. Everybody talks like that.
Annie Wilkes: THEY DO NOT! At the feedstore do I say, “Oh, now Wally, give me a bag of that F-in’ pig feed, and a pound of that bitchly cow corn”?

Annie Wilkes: Anything else I can get for you while I am in town? How about a tiny tape recorder, or how about a homemade pair of writing slippers?
Paul Sheldon: Annie, what’s the matter?
Annie Wilkes: What’s the matter? WHAT’S THE MATTER?! I will tell you “what’s the matter!” I go out of my way for you! I do everything to try and make you happy. I feed you, I clean you, I dress you, and what thanks do I get? “Oh, you bought the wrong paper, Anne, I can’t write on this paper, Anne!” Well, I’ll get your stupid paper but you just better start showing me a little appreciation around here, Mr. MAN!

Annie Wilkes: God came to me last night and told me your purpose for being here. I am going to help you write a new book.
Paul Sheldon: You think I can just whip one out?
Annie Wilkes: Oh, but I don’t think Paul, I know.

Annie Wilkes: I am your number one fan. There is nothing to worry about. You are going to be just fine. I am your number one fan.

Annie Wilkes: YOU! YOU DIRTY BIRD, HOW COULD YOU!
Paul Sheldon: What?
Annie Wilkes: She can’t be dead, MISERY CHASTAIN CANNOT BE DEAD!

Annie Wilkes: Oh, forgive me Paul for prattling away and making everything all oogy.

Annie Wilkes: Now the time has come. I put two bullets in my gun. One for me, and one for you. Oh darling, it will be so beautiful.

Annie: When I was growing up in Bakersfield, my favourite thing in the whole world was to go to the movies on Saturday afternoons for the Chapter Plays.
Paul: Cliffhangers.
Annie: I know that, Mr. Man! They also called them serials. I’m not stupid ya know… Anyway, my favorite was Rocketman, and once it was a ‘no-brakes’ chapter. The bad guy stuck him in a car on a mountain road and knocked him out and welded the door shut and tore out the brakes and started him to his death, and he woke up and tried to steer and tried to get out but the car went off a cliff before he could escape! And it crashed and burned and I was so upset and excited, and the next week, you better believe I was first in line. And they always start with the end of the last week. And there was Rocketman, trying to get out, and here comes the cliff, and just before the car went off the cliff, he jumped free! And all the kids cheered! But I didn’t cheer. I stood right up and started shouting. This isn’t what happened last week! Have you all got amnesia? They just cheated us! This isn’t fair! HE DIDN’T GET OUT OF THE COCKADOODIE CAR!

Annie: Now that’s an oogie mess.

Annie: You dirty bird!

[Buster comes in with copies of all the Misery novels]
Buster: I figure that if I can’t find Paul Sheldon, at least I’ll find out what he wrote about.
Virginia: Well, what do you expect to find? A story about a guy who drove his car off a cliff in a snowstorm?
Buster: You see? It’s just that kind of sarcasm that’s given our marriage real spice.

Annie: You’ll never know the fear of losing someone like you if you’re someone like me.

Misery Chastain: There is a justice higher than that of man. I will be judged by him.

[toasting]
Annie: To Misery?
Paul: To Misery.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • The Shining
  • Silence of the Lambs
  • Stand By Me
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2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Panic Room | Mutant Reviewers

  2. This is one of those movies that has withstood the test of time pretty well.
    I think that owes a lot to the realistic portrayal of mental illness: Annie’s psychosis ebbs and flows, she is able to downplay it for the outside world, and it bursts out in full force when things are not going her way. And mental illness neither makes her smart (hannibal lecter) nor does it make her stupid (the inbred-hillbilly stereotype).
    Her actions make perfect sense to her and to a small extent she can be reasoned with and manipulated. But she turns violent whenever her core-delusions are threatened (most people don’t turn murderous when in the grips of a psychosis, but some definitely do).

    Very good performance of both leads.

    I don’t mind about King writing a lot about writers: write what you know and all that. This movie in particular becomes all the better from that underlying hint of ‘realistic writer fears’.

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