Obsessive fans wanting to control the narrative is nothing new in this tension-filled King adaptation
Director: Rob Reiner
Cast: James Caan (Paul Sheldon), Kathy Bates (Annie Wilkes), Richard Farnsworth (Sheriff Buster), Frances Sternhagen (Deputy Virginia), Lauren Bacall (Marcia Sindell)
“I’m your number one fan”. Do any other words strike more fear into the hearts of celebrities? Stephen King’s Misery feels more and more ahead of the time. We live in an era where obsessed fans frequently take to YouTube (or obscure blogs – oh dear…) to shout their fury into the ether about how their beloved franchise has taken a wrong (i.e. counter to their head cannon) turn. Stephen King wasn’t a stranger to this: he’d already had fans in the mid-80s lambast his non-horror books. Misery takes it all a step further.
Successful novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) has written a series of Mills & Boon style Victorian romance novels about a character called Misery Chastain. Wanting to restart a career as a serious novelist, Paul retreats to the depths of Colorado to put the finishing touches to his new non-Misery novel. Driving back to New York, he has a car accident. With two broken legs and fractured shoulder, he is dragged from his car by nurse and fanatic Misery fan Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates). Annie tells him not to worry: the phone lines will be back up soon and until then he can stay at her home. Until she discovers Paul has killed off Misery in his recently published book. A furious Annie makes it clear no one knows he’s there and that, if he ever wants to escape her secluded home, he’ll write a new Misery book to Annie’s personal specifications.
Misery is part horror, part deeply black comedy – a heightened fantasy of increasing paranoia powered by a superb performance by Kathy Bates that walks a fine line between grand guignol, farce and deluded tragedy. In many ways Annie, monstrous in her obsession, is a superb dark comic creation. She has an anorak-level obsessive knowledge about her passions, litters her speech with prudish replacement swear-words (“cockadoodie!”), bounces around the room with schoolgirlish excitement at having Paul in her presence and adores her pet pig (named, of course, Misery). Bates is energetic, wide-eyed and times kind of sweet.
But she’s also a chillingly ruthless and capable of great outbursts of rage and fury at the slightest provocation. A lonely woman with clear signs of being either bipolar or deeply depressed, sinking at times into “black dog” moods, stuffing herself with junk food in front of trashy TV, she relies on Paul’s books to give her a slice of the romantic, exciting life she feels she has missed out on. Like the most toxic fans today, she feels such emotion for the Misery books, she believes they belong to her personally – and if they deviate from what she wants it’s a personal affront. She is also so desperate to love and be loved, she takes a brutal control of the world around her, convinced that if she just works really hard the object of her admiration will admit he feels the same.
Bates is extremely good in a performance strikingly similar to Hopkins’ Lecter a year later (also, of course, Oscar winning). It’s a masterclass in actorly tricks, all deployed with triumphant expertise to create a character who is both darkly funny and terrifyingly controlling. Annie is so twisted that, in a way, doping Paul up on drugs and smashing his legs with a sledgehammer is like an expression of love. If he really understood what she was trying to do for him, how she knew the sort of books he should be writing, he’d never want to leave anyway right?
That leg smashing scene – and God it’s almost impossible to watch – is the height of Reiner’s taut direction that brilliantly makes this an endlessly tense chamber piece. The camera frequently shoots Annie from Paul’s prone position, meaning we are craning our heads up to look at her in exactly the same way he is. Later sequences, where Paul finally works out how to pick the lock of his room and explore (in his wheelchair) Annie’s kitsch-filled house with its shrines to her favourite celebrities, also place us on his visual level. Several scenes use tension effectively – you’ll catch your breath at the dropping of a model penguin, clench as Paul hides pills and knives around him for future escape attempts or sweat as Paul rushes to return to his room when Annie arrives home suddenly. But Reiner also threads in Hitchcockian wit throughout, amongst the tension.
It also gains a great deal from James Caan’s measured performance as Paul. Caan was last in a longlist of male actors offered the role (a sharp change from those days when Caan turned down roles that went on to win other actors Oscars) but willingly plays the passive, scared Paul with a low-key humbleness that works very well. He becomes someone who it is easy to root for.
Misery explores the lengths obsessive fans will go to to own their passions very well. Annie rejects Paul’s first attempt at humouring her with a new Misery book for its inconsistencies with previous novels (she clearly knows way more about it then him). That’s not even mentioning she demands he burns the (only) copy of his new non-Misery novel because “it’s not worthy of him” (being full of naughty words). It’s so good – and in a way prescient of where fandom is heading – it feels a cheap cop-out to also reveal Annie is a serial killer. Far more interesting is how quickly an unhealthy fixation could tip a maladjusted person from demands, to threats, to leg smashing fury.
Misery also fits a little too neatly into a trend – common at the time – of “regular guys” having their lives turned upside down by dangerous, deranged women (there are more than a few nods to Fatal Attraction and it’s not a surprise to hear Michael Douglas was offered the role). For all the dark skill Bates plays Annie with, we are rarely invited to sympathise with or understand her (she’s cemented as a freak with the discovery of her killer past) – again, how more interesting (and prescient) would it have been to just have a woman driven to extremes by obsessive monomania?
The film works best as a chamber piece. So much so, that any scene outside of the house feels superfluous – despite the excellent work from Richard Farnsworth as the local sheriff investigating Paul’s disturbance. Misery, with its abandoned house in the middle of nowhere, is sometimes a little too open in its huge debt to Psycho. But it’s ahead of its time in understanding the obsessive anger that lies under the surface of the darker elements of fandom – so much so you wish it had stuck to that.