All throughout October, I’ve been reviewing some of the biggest Horror movies of the 1990’s, and now it’s time to highlight the film that really started it all, and ushered in a new age of suspense thrillers. The 1990 motion picture “Misery” is based on the novel of the same name by Steven King, and to date, this is one of his greatest book-to-screen adaptations. King’s book adaptation’s are largely hit or miss, but you can definitely rank this film right up there with “The Shawshank Redemption” as an A+. To call this film one of the best Horror movies to come out of the 90’s is an understatement, because for me, “Misery” is one of the most taut and frightening movie’s I’ve experienced, and one that continues to thrill me to this day.
It’s also a very simple premise, but true art thrives on minimalism. Our story revolves around a novelist name Paul Sheldon, who’s just put his long running Misery book series to rest, and is starting a new novel. During a snowstorm he gets into a near fatal car crash, is later nursed back to health and finally awakens ... to the worst nightmare of his life. He was rescued by a seemingly friendly nurse named Annie Wilkes, who’s looking after him in her secluded cabin. Coincidentally, she just happens to be a big fan of his books, in particular his series revolving around the heroine named Misery. As Paul recovers in her house, he soon realizes that his care taker is rather unhinged, and after she discovers that her favorite character Misery was killed off in the last book ... she flips out something awful! Soon, Paul Sheldon becomes a prisoner in Annie’s house, and is forced to write a new novel in which the character is brought back from the dead. Now, our victim writer has to use his strength and wits to escape the clutches of this psychotic fan who’s threatening to kill him. As the Tag line so eloquently puts it, “Paul Sheldon used to write for a living ... now he’s writing to stay alive”.
Now this isn’t the first time a horror movie revolved around a premise of this sort, in fact “Misery” could be called the spiritual successor of another horror classic from 1962 titled “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”. That too was a film revolving around a crazy woman who kept a crippled person captive in her own house hold, and there’s similar scenes that almost parallel one-another. However, “Misery” can stand apart with its own strengths, and disturbed content. It’s a special case in which all the right talents were assembled for one film production. The Director Rob Reiner was one of Hollywood’s hottest directors at the time, turning out big hits like “Stand By Me”, “The Princess Bride”, and “When Harry Met Sally”, which further establishes just how diverse he was. The screenwriter was William Goldman, who also worked on the classic western “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. Also, for a movie set in a confined location, it was blessed with the talents of Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who got a lot of attention for his work on “Miller’s Crossing”. Our leading author Pual Sheldon is played by James Caan, who previously starred in “The Godfather”, and is excellent in this film. For a character bound to a bed and wheel chair, he still gives a solid performance, and is very charismatic in the role. There’s also a local sheriff named Buster who’s determined to find our missing author, and he’s played delightfully by the late Richard Farnsworth.
Of course, it’s Kathy Bates who completely steals the show as the villain Annie Wilkes. Holly crap, was this woman terrifying or what? When you wake up from an intentness nightmare, it’s not Freddy Krueger or Dracula you fear hanging over your bed, instead it’s this psychotic, fan obsessed nut-ball. Kathy Bates is so friggin good that she deservedly won the academy award for best actress in a leading role. That’s awesome, and such a rare treat for a screen talent to win an academy award for playing a villain in a horror film. What really makes her so scary is her constant changing mood. At one point she can seem like the kindest lady on the planet, then before you know it, she loses her cool and becomes the most threatening person whom you’d never want to be left alone with. That’s the formula that makes this character so captivating, she keeps you on the edge of your seat with every scene, and we never know how she’s going to react or what she’ll do to get things her way. I’ve been around the block with horror movie villains for years, and despite her appearance, hardly any other villain has scared me, thrilled me or brought my blood to a boil more than Annie Wilkes.
As with many of the genera’s best films, “Misery” doesn’t assault the viewer prematurely. Instead, it carefully establishes a situation and then starts to build tension, making any act of violence all the more effective and disturbing. In the early 2000’s, we got horror movies like “Saw” and “Hostel” which exploited the concept of tortured prisoners, but “Misery” isn’t like those films. It has one stand out torture scene, but it feels earned and not so exploitive. There are several scenes in which Paul is just staggering about the house trying to find a way out, which leads to some riveting moments. Honestly, the situation gets so suspenseful that it’s almost unbearable. We so badly want to see him get out of this situation, and for the most part, we the audience feel trapped along with him, like we’re in the very same situation. I’ll never forget this one scene in which Paul has a plan of attack, but falls asleep, and awakens only to find Annie doomily hovering over him ... that scared the hell out of me. We also discover more about Annie’s shady past, that she was responsible for the deaths of children, and went to prison for years.
This further emphasizes just how dangerous the situation is. Like I said in the opening, it’s the simplicity of the film that makes it so captivating. For the most part, the film takes place in one room, with two actors, and one of which is mostly in bed, yet it’s consistently riveting, and never comes off as boring. Everything builds to a griping climax in which Paul finally finds the strength to take on his capture. It is so gratifying to finally see Paul get the upper hand, and it builds to a deeply satisfying revenge scene. I never would have imagined a fight between a pudgy old woman and a crippled man could be this exciting, yet it is a downright exhilarating final.
Bottom line, “Misery” is one of those movies that you only need to see once, and the experience will stick with you. Personally, even on repeated viewings, I find it to still be just as exciting and terrifying to experience. With Kathy Bates unforgettable leading performance, and a sharp direction, this film is a simple, strait forward suspense thriller, and it holds up extremely well after all these years. If you’re a fan of Steven King, then this movie is mandatory to check out. Also, just like with “The Silence of the Lambs”, it proves once again that human monsters really are the most frightening things to come from the horror genera.
I give the 1990 classic “Misery” … 4 ½ stars out of 5.