Misery (1990)

Stephen King has about a billion stories out there, and we’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg when it comes to covering them on this site. This week, we’re taking a look at the film adaptation of Misery, which features one of the most powerhouse performances ever in a horror film by Kathy Bates. That is no spoiler. To see just how and why she is so good in the movie, get a feel for things in the trailer and after you’ve seen it, continue on down for our spoilerific review of this movie that pulled off a rare feat in the genre and pulled in an Oscar.

Reviewed by: Jake

 
 

Plot Synopsis

Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is a big, famous author and as such, he lives a proper writer’s life. That means he likes to seal himself away in the Colorado mountains in the dead of winter to help get the juices flowing. As we know, that always works well.

 
 

 

While ripping around the backcountry in a muscle car during a blizzard, he does about the most predictable thing possible and careens directly into a ravine. Luckily for Sheldon, he’s saved from the wreckage by a passerby and he comes to some number of days later in the person’s home. His rescuer is Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) who claims to be his biggest fan. She quickly showcases an impressive level of creepiness by confessing to stalking him while he was staying at the hotel he was in and following him on his drive when he suffered the accident. It’s a good news/bad news situation. The good news is that he survived with her help. The bad news is that she is apparently a reclusive bible-beater who thinks it’s normal to stalk people. Annie shows James the extent of his injuries, and they are… extensive.

 

 
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Because he’s all busted up he can’t be easily transported and the blizzard has knocked out power and phone lines in the area meaning Annie will be taking care of him and overseeing his recovery for a few days. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Annie doesn’t really have much of a desire to turn him over. She wants him around, and she wants him to write a magnum opus for one of his romance novel characters, Misery Chastain. She’s so obsessed with Misery, she even bought a fucking sow and named it after her.

Time rolls on, Annie showcases a great range of manic depression and Paul progressively heals to the point of having the fortitude to try to escape from his captor. Annie realizes that she can’t hold him forever when he is able-bodied, so she decides to make things easier on herself by hobbling him. For the uninitiated, “hobbling” is a highly medical term referring to breaking someone’s ankles with a sledgehammer.

Sheldon is eventually able to coax Annie into a trap by staging a his typical novel completion celebration, where he smokes a single cig and slams some Dom Perignon. She falls for it and he uses the match for the dart and some fuel he’s stockpiled away to light that book on fire, throwing Annie into a tizzy fit. Sheldon uses this as an opportunity to beat the living shit out of her until dead. Some months later, he’s back in New York and celebrating a successful novel release. In his conversation with his publicist, he reveals that he’s still mentally scarred from the ordeal.


What the Movie Does Right

Kathy Bates is what this movie does right. What a hell of an impressively unhinged performance she turns in. Seriously, she carries this movie and you can’t take your eyes off her whenever she’s on screen, which is for the vast majority of the film. It’s so good, she won an Oscar and Golden Globe for best actress for it. Think about how often that happens in a horror movie… The movie is just littered with great scenes of complete, insane domination from Annie Wilkes’ character. Kind of like this one:

 
 

The other noteworthy thing here is that James Caan is a big name actor, and this dude pretty much just plays the role of sitting there and letting Bates crush it.

Misery really does live on the performance of Bates, and the product of her Wilkes character is almost two hours of some of the most uncomfortable interactions you could possibly imagine. There is a ton of tension packed into this film, and it uses Caan well to be just completely helpless in the hands of an insane person capable of anything. Of course, it all culminates with one of the most iconic horror scenes of all time, which I’m going to throw right here. Quick reminder that this is not for the faint of heart:

 

That, friends, is horrifying.

 

What the Movie Does Wrong

This doesn’t happen often, but if you listen to the podcast, you will see all three of us flounder tremendously to come up with anything noteworthy for this category. It’s certainly the sign of a good movie, but it’s also indicative of how little there is going on outside of the immensely awesome characters in the film. Though it feels like a reach, I do think it’s worth mentioning that for all the tension the movie builds, there are sequences where it feels a tad long and boring. The entire, slapstick gumshoes thread of Sheriff Buster is absurd and though it provides a few doses of humor in an otherwise joyless bath of discomfort, it feels out of place, tacked on, and slow.

There are also a few instances in the movie where the effects are a bit questionable. I know, you’re probably thinking about the leg scene and wondering what else there is, but go back and watch the scene where Sheldon deals the dying blow to Annie. It’s clearly just a weird mannequin they use, and it’s hilariously noticeable. Why? Why do that? You’re a $20 million movie.

What the Movie Maybe Does Wrong?

A final, required inclusion here is from Mark. He has a conspiracy theory that reshoots were done with a James Caan look alike. If true, it’s obviously fit for mentioning, so I’ll let you decide dear listener. Is this man James Caan, or is he an imposter?  

 
 Mark is convinced these are two different James Caans. He might be right?

Mark is convinced these are two different James Caans. He might be right?

 

Ratings (1-10)

Story: 7 - This is a simple but effective story that comes from a Stephen King novel. The only thing that’s keeping it from being higher is that it’s not really cutting-edge in any regard. It’s about an author that gets held hostage by a deranged fan. That’s it.

World-Building / Immersion: 6 - The scenes that Kathy Bates is involved in are tremendously immersive and uncomfortable. Luckily, that is most of the film. However, I will say that you know pretty early on how crazy she is and that brand of schtick really doesn’t change much throughout the film so you start to know the beats after awhile.

Scare-Factor: 4 - This is an uncomfortable movie and it has one of the best horror scenes of all time. So why is this a below average score? Because it’s about a dude that’s held hostage. She’s creepy but the film was also passable as a non-horror film to such a degree that the academy recognized it with an award.

Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 6.5 - Mostly judicious lack thereof, but with some notable things related to Caan’s legs. The hobbling scene will forever go down as one of the greats, but the beginning of the film also employs some impressively gross makeup that makes his legs feel very broken.

Overall: 7 - Unadulterated classic, but one that can be a little slow at times and really isn’t going to do anything that you haven’t seen conceptually. You need to see this for Kathy Bates’ character. End of story.