Misery poster


Remembering one of horror cinema’s most colourful tyrants


There is so much of Stephen King in Misery that you sometimes imagine you are reading a novel.

In fact, I will go on the record as saying that this is arguably the most loyal King adaption ever put to celluloid. Other adaptations such as Brian De Palma‘s Carrie and Stanley Kubrick‘s The Shining are as much indicative of their styles as they are of the storyteller’s. The former uses inventive, split screen techniques to portray the protagonist’s polar personalities, while the latter is so distinctly Kubrick in tone that King would go on record as saying it wasn’t exactly to his tastes—this, of course, after the director rejected King as a potential screenwriter on the project after branding his writing ‘weak’.

Those particular styles worked wonders for those respective movies, but Misery is a different beast entirely. Understanding as much, Rob Reiner takes a backseat and simply lets the text do the talking, but as he did with his other King adaptation Stand by Me, he manages to get the absolute most out of his cast, forging one of the genre’s most outstanding performances in Kathy Bates’s portrayal of the unforgettable Annie Wilkes, a role that would see her land the Best Supporting Actress gong at the 1990 Academy Awards. Some may feel that Reiner’s paint-by-numbers adaptation lacks ambition, but in my opinion it takes great integrity to leave such a subtle thumbprint on what is a masterful work of character-driven fiction. After all, could you imagine this movie any other way?

Annie Wilkes

The setup is classic King. Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is a prolific writer who has achieved unmitigated success with a series of mainstream page-turners. Thanks to the crowd-pleasing adventures of one Misery Chastain, Sheldon has legions of die hard fans and a publisher who tells him he walks on water, but he is not as satisfied with his status as she is. In spite of his wealth and popularity, he knows he has become a hack and resents what Misery has turned him into. After finishing his latest instalment at a snowy mountain retreat, Sheldon loses control of his car and skids off the road as a falling blizzard threatens to bury him alive. When he later awakes in a strange house to a voice proclaiming to be his number one fan, you could perhaps forgive him for imagining he had woken up in hell.

Paul Sheldon [referring to a beat-up leather satchel] – When I wrote my first book I used to carry it around in this while I was looking for a publisher. I was a writer then.

Marcia Sindell: You’re still a writer.

Paul Sheldon: I haven’t been a writer since I got in the Misery business.

Of course, he doesn’t know the half of it. To begin with, Annie Wilkes seems harmless enough, and anyone good enough to pull you out of a car wreck and nurse you back to health surely can’t be all bad. Annie seems like your typical small town girl, shy and starstruck in the presence of her favourite author, the man responsible for whisking her away from her humdrum existence to a fantasy world of honour and romance. The problem is, Misery’s world has become an almost figurative retreat for Annie. Without it, everything falls apart.

Misery Sheldon

For a while, Sheldon is totally dependent on Annie. According to her, the roads are snowed in, the phone lines are down, and as a former nurse the local hospital has given her permission to care for his injuries until they are able to take over. His only option is to look upon his predicament as a quasi-vacation, and his host certainly makes him feel that way, providing room service and anything else he desires with the smiling subservience of a hotel bellboy. Inevitably, Annie comes across Paul’s unpublished manuscript, and he sees no reason why the woman who saved his life cannot be the first to read it. However, it is after she has read it that affairs begin to unravel.

With his heart set on other literary horizons, Paul has killed off Misery, but that won’t stand. Annie is fanatical about those characters, protective of them as if they were her own blood, and not even Sheldon himself has the right to steal them away from her. When rattled, Annie is an intimidating beast, a raging psychopath with delusions of decorum, a woman who justifies violence and murder with the same fantastical sentiments that exist within the pages of her favourite fiction. She is manipulative, controlling and obsessive, and in Sheldon she has found the object of that obsession. Her insistence that he rewrite the novel to her own specifications is the ultimate symbol of her autocratic nature.

Misery Annie

Bates portrays Annie with an idiosyncratic lunacy that is at once deeply unsettling and strangely comical. Her kooky language, the kind you might hear from the lips of an enraged aunt chastising a naughty child, is key to the movie’s perverse sense of horror as our antagonist perches on the brink of insanity. Exploding into fits of rage over the kind of trivialities that are beneath the care of any sane person, Annie blubbers with mocking imitation when questioned, overcome with an almost inhuman vacancy whenever her painstakingly plotted fantasy world is jeopardised.

Annie Wilkes: 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 DID’NT GET OUT OF THE COCK – A – DOODIE CAR!

When in company, Annie hides behind a facade of goodwill and decency, but struggles to mask the unbridled ugliness that truly defines her. One minute she is dancing and twirling with the exuberance of an elated schoolgirl, the next she is peering into a void of solitude and destruction. On a good day you might find her playfully oinking like her pet pig, a crude and exquisite symbol of her slovenly capacity for destruction. Catch her on a bad day and you’ll find her holding a loaded revolver, openly contemplating suicide with the dead eyes of a cultish zealot. When she blows away an ageing sheriff (Richard Farnsworth) with a double barrel shotgun, the extent of her brutality is spelled out as the thrill of violence enslaves her soul.

Misery Sheldon Finger

Caan is the perfect foil as the helpless and increasingly stupefied victim, staring in disbelief at the monstrous enigma who has captured him like a fly in her isolated web. His flip, no-nonsense edge is completely at odds with his captor’s oafish tyranny, and the notion of his depleted will squirming under the ilk of Annie’s knitted oppression is blackly comic gold. At first Paul treads a careful line, but when he realises she has no intention of letting him go he looks upon her phoney manner with derision, dripping with sarcasm as he slowly regains his strength and searches for a way out.

Being such a Sheldon fanatic, Annie naturally has the upper hand, is able to use her fanatical knowledge to dictate the situation. When she demands that he burn his sacrilegious manuscript, she is fully aware that he only ever makes one copy before submitting it to his publisher, making his protestations futile. When spring washes away the snow and Paul is on the road to recovery, she lures him into a false sense of security before subjecting him to one of horror’s most excruciating scenes. At its most macabre, Misery is a tough watch.

Misery Sledge

But Paul proves himself a resourceful opponent. He realises that someone as crazy as Annie can be pandered to and even manipulated. So intent is Annie on maintaining her delusions that she is sometimes willing to believe anything, overlooking his sweat-fuelled foray around her home in search of a phone, and allowing him the opportunity to drug her by getting wrapped in the false promise of a possible romance. Paul comes to understand her with the same attention to detail that she does him, manipulating her obsessions to inspire weakness as we head for a long-awaited showdown of agonisingly comic proportions. In the end, Sheldon becomes almost as vindictive as she is.

Paul Sheldon – You want it? You want it? Eat it! Eat it till ya choke, you sick, twisted fuck!

Misery is relentlessly tense and claustrophobic, but permeated with a sense of irony that alleviates, leaving you in a state of disbelief that often borders on the hysterical. Its mocking wit is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho: the fanaticism and detachment from reality of the film’s antagonist, the isolation and the oddly stimulating sense of perversity. The interior of Annie’s house is even reminiscent of the Bates home, particularity when the local Sheriff goes exploring, his ascent up the staircase recalling images of a knife-wielding Norman striding to meet Det. Milton Arbogast on the landing while a vital clue lies deep in the basement.

Misery Bludgeoned

King often uses writers as protagonists in his work, and you get the impression that he has fretted over the claustrophobic scenario that makes Misery such a delightfully macabre tale. Bereft of supernatural monsters and telekinesis, this is an all-too-real story featuring real people, one that reminds us of the true horrors that exist in the world at large, and how they can afflict any one of us on any given day. Generally, the scariest antagonists are not those grandiose and supernatural creations, nor are they the faceless killers bereft of any tangible motive. Instead they are the seemingly conventional, those who justify their actions in ways that leave a vaguely human construct.

For some, the slightest blight on their reality is enough to bring that construct tumbling down. There are many lonely souls like Annie in the world, borderline personalities who slip through the cracks and become rather too comfortable in the realms of self-delusion. People ignore the likes of Annie, sweep them under society’s rug and acknowledge them only from a distance. They become the subject of derision, ridicule, even condescension, but without regular human interaction people tend to slip further away from the laws of humanity. When you are the ruler of your own kingdom, you answer to nobody but yourself.


Misery logo



Written by Cedric Smarts Editor-in-Chief

Science Fiction Writer, Horror Enthusiast, Scourge of Plutocracy, Creator of vhsrevival.com

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