Misery featured

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

Misery poster

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


There is so much Stephen King in Misery it’s almost like reading a novel. In fact, Rob Reiner’s deliciously macabre nightmare may be the most loyal King adaptation ever committed to celluloid, one that would have been equally suited to the bright lights of the theatre. Some of King’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. Reiner, who had taken a similar approach with revered coming of age drama Stand By Me four years prior, is once again happy to take a back seat and let the material do the talking. 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, helping forge one of the genre’s most outstanding performances in Kathy Bates’ astonishing portrayal of the inimitable Annie Wilkes, a role that would see her land the Best Actress gong at the 63rd Academy Awards ceremony.

Reiner’s best movies are typically low-key affairs that cost much less than they make, a testament to his modest and understated approach to filmmaking. Stand By Me would manage a healthy return of $52,300,000 from an estimated $8,000,000, and 1989‘s iconic romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally, another production that was very much character-driven, would fare even better, managing an astonishing $93,100,000 from a budget of $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. During the 1980s, pretty much everything Reiner touched turned to gold. Producers must have loved him.

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 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. 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.

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, Sheldon doesn’t know the half of it. 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. 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. 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? 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 option 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.

Misery Sheldon

The problem with idealising someone, however gifted, is 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. Bad move. 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, and 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, and for a mind like Annie’s that’s a very dangerous thing indeed.

Annie is an odd card from the off, even as the salt of the earth saviour she initially portrays, a wholly fictional persona barely worthy of Sheldon’s condescension. In reality, Annie is 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.

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 — is key to the movie’s off-colour sense of horror, 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 fantasy world is jeopardised. Her sudden changes in mood, from bubbly, congenial host to emotional black hole, are absolutely devastating, and utterly compelling.

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!

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. 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.”

Misery Annie

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 is dancing and twirling with the exuberance of an elated schoolgirl, the next she is 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 holding 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 an ageing sheriff (Richard Farnsworth) with a double barrel shotgun, 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, 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, and the notion of his big city persona squirming under the ilk of Annie’s home-knitted oppression is 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.

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 wound to stop him from bleeding out. For me, that would have been too much for Reiner’s interpretation. Paul, and indeed the viewer, 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. It is gallows humour at its most delicious.

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

There are very few horror protagonists who we get so firmly behind as an audience. Paul is put through a physical and emotional wringer of the purest torment, worn to a nub by Annie’s systematic regime, and his unlikely rehabilitation, an act of necessary subterfuge committed under her very nose, is a monument to the will of human instinct and determination. So premeditated and well-oiled is Annie’s steamroller of oppression that all seems futile, 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 she is 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 her with the same attention to detail she does him, manipulating her obsessions as we head for a long-awaited showdown of agonisingly comic proportions. In the end, Sheldon becomes a master interpreter of Annie’s very own work of fiction.

Misery Sledge

Misery is relentlessly tense and claustrophobic, but the legendary 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 the 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 Det. 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. 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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