Horror review: Misery

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, DEC. 6, 1990

By Steve Newton

Stephen King’s 1987 novel Misery is widely regarded by King aficionados as one of his most compelling and consistently terrifying works. The tale of a best-selling author held captive by his “number-one fan”, Misery is all the more frightening because it is real horror—you are left with the impression that it could definitely happen. The flame-throwing kid from Firestarter or the haunted car in Christine can’t compare with Misery’s mutilating, psychopathic ex-nurse, Annie Wilkes.

When it was announced that Rob Reiner would direct the film version of Misery, King fans had reason to rejoice—especially in light of the wonderful job Reiner did turning King’s novella “The Body” into the smash hit Stand By Me. Then William Goldman, one of Hollywood’s most admired novelist/screenwriters (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man) was hired to do the screenplay, virtually nixing the possibility of a crummy script ruining the film (as it has in other King projects).

The icing on the cake was the signing of James Caan to play the role of victimized author Paul Sheldon and accomplished stage actress Kathy Bates to portray villainess Wilkes. All the pieces were in place for the kind of horror film that is rare: the kind you remember.

The movie starts out with romance writer Sheldon sheltered in a Colorado hotel, putting the finishing touches on his latest novel—a highly personal one (like King’s own Misery) that he believes will finally win him the critical acclaim his past bodice-rippers haven’t. After typing “The End”, and cracking a bottle of champagne to celebrate, he sets off down a mountain road to deliver the manuscript to his agent (Lauren Bacall).

But Sheldon drives right into a fierce snowstorm and winds up trapped and injured in his overturned ’65 Mustang. Enter Annie Wilkes, who rescues Sheldon from a snowy grave, pops his dislocated shoulder back into place, puts his broken legs in splints, and hooks him up to the old intravenous.

Sheldon regains consciousness with the belief that he’s been saved by a guardian angel—albeit a rather odd one. He starts to see the real Wilkes after letting her read his unpublished manuscript; she’s not impressed with his use of swear words and freaks right out.

But that’s nothing compared to her reaction when she buys his latest book and discovers that he’s killed off her favourite character, Misery Chastain. She demands that he bring Misery back to life in a new book, and when the wheelchair-ridden Sheldon realizes it’s either write or die, he complies—all the while nurturing his strength for that one shot at escape.

Because its protagonist spends most of his time recuperating in bed, Misery does drag in spots. Since we aren’t taken inside Sheldon’s mind to witness the physical and mental torment he’s suffering—or inside Wilkes’s own twisted psychoses—the psychological terror relayed so well in King’s book has to be conveyed by long, dialogue-intensive scenes.

But Caan and Wilkes are up for it, and their interaction is genuinely disturbing—and often quite funny (although the humour hits a serious low when Wilkes puts her considerable weight behind a well-placed sledgehammer blow).

Horror fans looking for cinematic shocks à la Carrie and The Dead Zone might have trouble with Misery, but those with more subtle tastes should enjoy its sinister, low-key tone. Like Stand By Me, Misery can’t help but broaden the audience for movies based on Stephen King’s work.

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