Misery featured

A Cock-A-Doodie Nightmare: Misery & the Reign of Annie Wilkes

Misery poster

Remembering one of horror’s most colourful tyrants and the real-life drug addiction that inspired her


Not only is Misery one of the most underrated and beautifully realised Stephen King adaptations, it’s one of the most devoutly loyal, Rob Reiner’s deliciously macabre nightmare playing out like a live-action novel for the most part. Like any screen adaptation there are subtle differences, minor embellishments that are intrinsic to the format, but due to the film’s simplicity and budget-friendly nature there’s no substantial trimming-down of events, resulting in a film that would have been equally suited to the bright lights of the theatre. The differences or embellishments that do exist, like the investigation of Richard Farnsworth’s local sheriff, Buster, are stylistic deviations owing to King’s insular presentation. Like many of King’s works, the novel takes a claustrophobic approach that traps the reader with protagonist Paul Sheldon, Annie’s insane temperament revealed almost from the outset. This means that the world beyond the confines of the Wilkes home remains a mystery, which while perfect for the tense and isolating throes of literary consumption may have proven a little one-dimensional for moviegoers, particularly since the novel’s only stylistic release comes in the form of excerpts from Sheldon’s latest book.

King is renown for being particularly precious about his work when it comes to artistic licence, several directors transforming his stories into visions that deviate rather spectacularly from the source material. Some of the writer’s most revered and fondly remembered adaptations are as much indicative of their directors’ styles as they are the original storyteller’s. Brian De Palma’s Carrie, bathed in the woozy lens of prom queen fantasy and famous for its innovative split screen finale, belongs very much to the realms of cinema, and it’s not an isolated example. Perhaps most detached from its source material is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, a film that eschews storytelling convention for a subliminal descent into madness. King was unimpressed with Jack Nicholson’s iconic portrayal of maniacal patriarch Jack Torrance, questioning the sense of a performance that oozed craziness from the outset for a story which focuses on a man’s steady deterioration. Kubrick’s auteur approach displeased King to the extent that he would later team up with director Mick Garris to pen a TV mini-series that he felt was closer to his original vision. This, after Kubrick had rejected King as screenwriter, branding his writing ‘weak’.

Misery is a different beast entirely, as is filmmaker Reiner — perhaps the only person King would have trusted with what he has described as one of his most personal works. When producer Andrew Scheinman came across the novel during the late 1980s, he was surprised to learn that it was yet to be optioned at a time when King adaptations were all the rage. He was also delighted since he and Reiner had already had huge success adapting King’s novella ‘The Body’ for the silver screen, 1985’s coming of age drama Stand By Me managing a whopping $52,300,000 on a budget of only $7,500,000. King and Reiner already had a good relationship off the back of Stand By Me, which King claimed was the single greatest adaptation of his work he had ever seen at the time of its release. “We showed the film to Stephen King alone in a screening room, and when it was over he was pretty broken up. He excused himself for about 15 minutes,” Reiner recalled in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. “When he came back he said, ‘That’s the best film ever made out of anything I’ve written, which isn’t saying much. But you’ve really captured my story.’

It was Reiner’s trust in the source material, his willingness to let King’s words do the talking while focusing on the performances of his young cast, that earned the writer’s trust, an approach that he would also apply to Misery. Reiner may not have possessed the colossal personality of someone like Kubrick, another reason why he and King enjoyed such a solid working relationship, but he had an incredible run during the 1980s, producing some of the decade’s most fondly remembered movies across multiple genres, and Misery is up there with his very finest. His best movies were typically low-key affairs that cost much less than they made, a testament to his modest and understated approach to filmmaking. 1989‘s iconic romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally, another production that was very much character-driven, would fare even better than Stand By Me, managing an astonishing $93,100,000 on a budget of only $16,000,000. Even lesser financial successes The Princess Bride and This is Spinal Tap have garnered cult followings in the years since their release, cleaning up on multiple home viewing formats. Back then, pretty much everything Reiner touched turned to gold. The studios must have loved him.

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

Paul Sheldon

Misery‘s set-up 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 amassed legions of die hard fans and a publisher who tells him he walks on water, but he’s not as satisfied with his status as she is. Despite his wealth and popularity, he knows he has become a hack and resents what Misery has turned him into, a fear shared by King at a somewhat paranoid and emotionally tumultuous juncture in his career. 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 awakens in a strange house to a voice proclaiming to be his number one fan, he could be forgiven for thinking he had woken up in hell.

Of course, Sheldon doesn’t know the half of it. His initial glimpse into the unknown horrors of a reclusive backwoods resident throw up visions of quaint, salt of the earth annoyances, the horrible realisation that only aloof condescension can get him through an extended stay with a dedicated fan who has fallen for the kind of creatively redundant material he has grown to resent. Annie seems harmless enough to begin with, and anyone good enough to pull you out of a car wreck and nurse you back to health surely can’t be all bad, but nobody likes to be out of their element for too long, despite the privilege and sense of control that superstardom brings. Annie seems like your typical small town girl — shy and star-struck in the presence of her favourite big city author, the man responsible for whisking her away from her humdrum existence to a fantasy world of honour and romance, however stilted and commercially cynical his intentions. Annie has idealised Sheldon as a god amongst men. The problem is, Misery’s world has become an almost figurative retreat for her. Without it, everything falls apart.

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 Sheldon’s injuries until they are able to take over. Paul accepts his host’s explanations without resistance. What reason would he have to doubt her? What other option does he have? Annie has obvious experience as a nurse and there’s absolutely no way a person in his condition could make it anywhere, even without the adverse weather conditions. His only course of action is to look upon his predicament as a quasi-vacation, and his host certainly makes him feel at home, providing room service and anything else he desires with the smiling subservience of a hotel maid. Unlike the novel, Reiner’s adaptation builds tension by portraying Annie as a somewhat bipolar personality, a paradox who initially hides her duality, masquerading beneath a veneer of traditional moral values. It’s an inspired move that shifts focus to the film’s antagonist and true star. Keifer Sutherland once described Reiner as “an actor’s director” who would “allow you to discover a moment when in fact he’s telling it to you”, and once again he is able to get the absolute best from his cast. Not only does he help forge one of the genre’s most memorable villains, he inspires one of its most outstanding performances, actress Kathy Bates’ astonishing portrayal earning her the Best Actress gong at the 63rd Academy Awards. To say it was deserved, even up against the likes of Anjelica Huston and Meryl Streep, is a gross understatement.

It’s James Caan’s soon-to-be-beleaguered author who takes the brunt of that performance, a delirious onslaught that pins you to your seat with morbid curiosity. The problem with idealising someone, however gifted, is that they inevitably disappoint, and it turns out that Annie isn’t the easiest person to please. When she discovers Paul’s unpublished manuscript she is giddy with glee, and he sees no reason why the woman who saved his life shouldn’t be the first to read it, a seemingly harmless courtesy that proves to be the single biggest mistake of his life. With this one simple gesture, Sheldon awakens a long-dormant beast of tyrannical proportions. 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. As far as she’s concerned not even Sheldon himself has the right to steal them away from her. They say that once a writer has committed their work to publication it immediately becomes public property; its characters, their intentions, they become open to interpretation. For a mind like Annie’s, that’s a very dangerous notion indeed.

Nicknamed the ‘Dragon Lady’ by a press who unveil the kind of macabre past that temporarily halts all semblance of humour, Bates’ bulldozing matriarch may portray herself as a passionate woman with old time values, a selfless person with honourable intentions, but in reality she’s the lead character in her own idealistic fantasy world, the whole experience unravelling like a perverse stage play with Annie portraying multiple roles and Paul as the production’s only spectator. When rattled, our congenial host is an intimidating beast, a ball of ox-like fury hiding behind delusions of decorum, a woman who justifies violence and murder with the same dubious 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 Sheldon

Bates portrays Annie with an idiosyncratic lunacy that is both deeply unsettling and strangely comical. Her kooky language — the kind you might hear from the lips of a cross aunt chastising a naughty child — proving key to the movie’s off-colour sense of horror and deeply macabre gallows humour, allowing the seemingly conventional a deeply troubling edge. 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 challenged, overcome with an almost inhuman vacancy whenever her painstakingly plotted utopia is jeopardised. Her sudden shifts in mood, from bubbly, congenial host to emotional black hole, are absolutely devastating and utterly compelling. You just never know what you’re going to get.

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!

Annie Wilkes

King often uses writers as protagonists, and you get the impression he has fretted over the exact scenario that makes Misery such a delightfully ironic tale, but the novel was actually a symbol of King’s much publicised eight-year battle with cocaine addiction, one that no doubt drove his incredible literary output during the 1980s. It also influenced some of his weaker novels, as well as his notoriously bonkers directorial splurge Maximum Overdrive, a production that he all but abandoned for large stretches. In an interview with Rolling Stone, the writer would explain, “Well, I can’t comprehend [how I lived a secret life of addiction] now, either, but you do what you have to do. And when you’re an addict, you have to use. So you just try to balance things out as best you can. But little by little, the family life started to show cracks. I was usually pretty good about it. I was able to get up and make the kids breakfast and get them off to school. And I was strong; I had a lot of energy. I would’ve killed myself otherwise. But the books start to show it after a while. Misery is a book about cocaine. Annie Wilkes is cocaine. She was my number-one fan.”

The comparisons between Wilkes and King’s addiction are plain to see. 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’s dancing and twirling with the exuberance of an elated schoolgirl, the next she’s peering into a void of solitude and self-immolation. On a good day you might find her playfully imitating her pet pig (also called Misery), a crude and exquisite symbol of her slovenly capacity for destruction. Catch her on a bad day and you’ll find her wielding a loaded revolver, openly contemplating suicide with the dead eyes of a cultish zealot. Such behaviour is symptomatic of cocaine addiction: the chemical highs and emotional lows, the wild-eyed lust and introspective self-rejection. When Annie ‘hobbles’ Sheldon as his recovery edges closer, the kind of gruesome act that stays with you forever, it is symbolic of King’s failed attempts to escape addiction. Later, when she decimates Farnsworth’s ageing sheriff with a double barrel shotgun blast, a sense of godlike arrogance consumes her entirely, the extent of her dominance spelled out as the thrill of violence enslaves her soul.

Bates is the first face you see whenever somebody mentions Misery, a character that earned her inextricable passage into the horror zeitgeist, and understandably so, but 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 sardonic edge is completely at odds with his captor’s oafish tyranny, the fact that his big city persona continues to squirm under Annie’s home-knitted oppression blackly comic gold. At first Paul treads a careful line, but when he realises his captor has no intention of letting him go, he looks upon her disingenuousness with derision, dripping with sarcasm as he slowly regains his strength and searches for a way out. His incredulity and sense of impotent disgust, almost perversely comical, mirror that of the film’s audience in a way that proves infinitely relatable.

As perfect as Caan is for the role, the actor initially struggled to bring Sheldon to life in the way that Reiner and the material demanded. It didn’t help that he was something of a last-minute replacement for original star Warren Beatty, who was so in-tune with the project that Reiner later praised him for “making the script better than it was.” Caan, renown for his high-energy temperament, took time to find the character, unable to muster the serenity required for the scene in which Sheldon calmly lights a celebratory cigarette following the completion of his manuscript. “[Caan is] very fidgety. He’s a very physical guy. He keeps moving,” Reiner would recall. “Take after take after take, he keeps moving. It’s like ‘Jimmy!’ Finally after 10 or 15 takes he finally does it. And we had to break for lunch.”

Ironically, Caan and Reiner’s frustrations ultimately worked in their favour. For the majority of the film, the battered, bruised and ultimately abused Sheldon is confined almost entirely to his bed and wheelchair, be that naturally or due to outside forces, which made the actor even more restless and fidgety, a state of unease that translated beautifully to the screen. Naturally, savvy motivator Reiner knew exactly which buttons to push, repeating the same exact line before each scene in an attempt to further frustrate Caan by design. “(Caan) kept thinking I would give him some wisdom,” Reiner said. “But each time, I’d just say ‘Jimmy, in this scene you’re in bed.’ And then I’d walk away.”

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

Paul Sheldon

Such tension translates to Paul’s growing resentment for his captor and the often excruciating battle that ensues. 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 Paul 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, the kind that leaves you dying a slowly wilting death. Everyone was talking about the infamous hobbling scene following Misery‘s release. It was one of those car crash moments that really captured the collective imagination. In the novel, Sheldon’s fate was much worse, Annie choosing the axe over the sledgehammer and cauterising her victim’s wounds to stop him from bleeding out. That would have been too much for Reiner’s interpretation. Paul, and indeed his audience, didn’t deserve such a fate after everything they’d been subjected to. It wouldn’t have suited the movie’s darkly comic edge. At its most hellacious, Misery is a tough watch, but it’s also a film that leaves you dancing a delirious line between all-out anguish and disbelieving laughter.

The unrelenting frustration and seeming futility of Paul’s ordeal allows us to get behind him like very few horror protagonists. Our increasingly cynical captor is put through a physical and emotional wringer of the purest torment, worn to a nub by Annie’s systematic regime, his unlikely rehabilitation, an act of necessary subterfuge committed under her very nose, a monument to the will of human instinct and determination. So premeditated and well-oiled is Annie’s steamroller of oppression that all seems hopeless, 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 morbid fantasy that she’s sometimes willing to believe anything the author tells her, overlooking Paul’s sweat-fuelled foray around her home in search of a phone and allowing him the opportunity to drug her by getting wrapped-up in the false promise of a possible romance. Paul comes to understand Annie with the same attention to detail that she does him, manipulating her obsessions as we head for a long-awaited showdown of agonisingly comic proportions. Ironically, triumphantly, he becomes a master interpreter of Annie’s very own work of fiction.

Misery is relentlessly tense and claustrophobic, but William Goldman’s screenplay is permeated with a sense of irony that alleviates proceedings just enough for you to stay the course. Without that acerbic edge, bone-breaking acts of madness and bullish final battles would prove joylessly excruciating, but the film has the incredible ability to leave you smiling throughout. Misery‘s mocking wit is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho: the fanaticism and detachment from reality, the isolation and oddly stimulating sense of perversity lurking somewhere beneath our host’s outward geniality. The interior of Annie’s house is even reminiscent of the Bates home, particularity when Sheriff Buster goes exploring, his ascent up the staircase recalling images of a knife-wielding Norman striding to meet Detective Milton Arbogast on the landing while a vital clue lies buried deep in the basement. The way Annie dispatches of Buster, a married man of simple pleasures well past retirement age, is cold, calculated and presided over with such indomitable clarity that any lingering thread of sympathy dies on the vine.

Bereft of supernatural monsters and high concept flourishes, Misery is an all-too-real story driven by very real characters, one that reminds us of the true horrors that exist in the world and how they can afflict any one of us on any given day, which is what makes it so fun and relatable, providing vicarious thrills that are positively heart-pounding. Generally, the scariest antagonists are not those purely fantastical creations. Nor are they 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, transforming them into subjects 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

Director: Rob Reiner
Screenplay: William Goldman
Music: Marc Shaiman
Cinematography: Barry Sonnenfeld
Editing: Robert Leighton

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