Misery (1990)

Directed by Rob Reiner

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Some of what makes Misery so deliriously wonderful is the detail.  This is a pretty straightforward, ruthlessly parodied tale of horror that has surely stood some kind of test of time because of those little details like the typewriter with the missing “n,” and the wholesome partnership between the sheriff and his wife.  It’s these little moments of humor that often seem necessary to balance out the horror, but in Misery it doesn’t just feel like it’s filling some predetermined role.  That level of comedy or observation is just a little flare, something which makes what is nevertheless a fairly predictable genre movie feel even a bit unpredictable.

So I really enjoyed Misery, is what I’m saying.  It’s based on a Stephen King story, about a novelist hidden away in the snowy mountains of a small town while he finishes his most recent novel, the last in a series of unfulfilling serials about a woman named Misery and her multiple love interests.

He leaves his little cabin as a blizzard sets in, and a few moments later Paul Sheldon (James Caan) finds his vehicle overturned and his body badly damaged.  He wakes up sometime later in the bed of his “number one fan,” Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates).  She is a nurse who has quickly stitched up and medicated the disoriented author, and at first glance she would seem to be a miracle, the only person who could’ve possibly saved the doomed author.

That’s not really the case, of course.  If you’re watching this film for the first time now, as I was, then you’ve seen countless parodies and references to this film.  Wilkes is a monstrous character, a clear cut villain with little nuance or complexity, and soon enough Sheldon catches on to her ulterior motives.

See, as Sheldon’s number one fan, Wilkes wants him to write a new entry to the Misery franchise, at least after she reads his most recent works and doesn’t find it suitable, simply because Misery dies in the end.

Sheldon is limited to his bed or a wheelchair, with two badly broken legs, and while he initially believes it when Wilkes insists the roads are closed and the phone lines are down, he will slowly realize she’s lying, and it’s not long after that she becomes outright monstrous.  This is when Sheldon begins writing the newest Misery novel, under the demanding, watchful eye of the poster child for toxic fandom.

Between syringes, pills, and sledgehammers, Wilkes will torment her victim and push him to be probably as productive as he’s ever been.  All the while he plans his escape.

On the other side of this is a kindly old Sheriff whose wife, when Sheldon’s publisher calls inquiring about his disappearance, remarks that a busy day one phone call makes.  This officer is Sheriff Buster (Richard Farnsworth), and eventually he will close in on Wilkes, much in the same way one of the supporting characters is supposed to do in films like this.

This is all fairly similar to Psycho, in which the main character finds him or herself in the web of the villain, made to realize the full scope of such villainy before there is any hope of survival.  Because they are so stuck in this web, we must follow a third character who will work to track them down and save them.  Oftentimes this person will fly too close to the sun and then bite the bullet themselves.  That is so that the main character might win back some agency and fight for their freedom on their own.  As any screenwriting book will tell you, it’s important to have an active protagonist.

Considering Sheldon is wheelchair-bound before we ever really get to know him, giving him such agency is a bit of a challenge.  He will try and manipulate Wilkes as best he can, treating her like a friend and confidant to win some of her trust, and when she’s gone he will struggle to wheel and crawl his way through the house.

Still, there is only so much he can do so in the end it returns to mind games.  Him being an author, it only follows that he will spin a new narrative to pull Wilkes into his own web.

Misery is great because of how streamlined it is.  An author is held hostage by an adoring fan, wonderful, I can see it already.  The unexpected beauty is those little details that bring the story and characters to life as well as the genuine horror of Bates’ performance and the way she is framed.  Even though you know what she’s up to and how deranged she surely is, watching it play out is nevertheless eerie and sinister.  It doesn’t surprise me that she won an Oscar.

Up Next: Nine to Five (1980), Blackboard Jungle (1955), Glass (2019)

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