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Film review – Misery (1990)

Anyone who knows me well (or has listened to FTLOH for any length of time) will know that I am something of a Stephen King aficionado, or perhaps a better way of putting it would be ‘mild obsessive’.

I buy all of his books, in hardback, on the day of their release , something I’ve only ever done with two authors (Stephen King and the latter part of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series of books).

Except for the Dark Tower series. I was waiting for those to all be published in order to read them one after another, but then a friend told me that someone he knows read them all and then when he finished, smashed his flat up, which put me off somewhat…

So, it’s safe to say that you can list me as one of King’s fans, and fortunately for a horror film nerd like me, his writing is so rich and compelling that it also tends to lend itself pretty well to being converted onto the screen.

That said, I don’t just automatically say that everything of his is brilliant.

Don’t even get me started on The Tommyknockers. (Stephen King would agree with me on this one, so in the unlikely event that he reads this, then I’m totally in the clear!)

Ironically, The Tommyknockers was published in the exact same year as my all-time favourite of his books, Misery.

I rarely re-read books, but I’ve read Misery and The Shining at least five times each.

Like many of King’s works of about that time, a lot of the subject matter of the book Misery is semi-autobiographical, echoing King’s struggles with addiction (both alcohol and drugs, until his family staged an intervention, some time shortly after this book was written).

The main character, Paul Sheldon, eventually becomes an alcoholic, and King has said that Annie Wilkes’ character is a personification of his struggle against addiction (‘God, she never wanted to leave’).

Image result for misery film

So, out of all of the films and TV series which are adaptations of King’s works, (many of which are excellent: The Shawshank Redemption; The Green Mile; Carrie; The Shining) why is it that Misery stands the test of time as one of my favourites?

To explain that, I need to discuss some of the film’s plot. Mild spoilers ahead!

At the start of the film, we meet Paul Sheldon, sitting at a typewriter in a remote log cabin, putting the finishing touches on his latest novel, as we see him type ‘The End’.

He pours himself a glass of Moet & Chandon, smokes a cigarette and then, for some unfathomable reason (is he drunk or just drunk on the happiness which comes with completing a writing project?) decides to drive home, coincidentally setting out just as a terrible storm is due to hit.

Predictably, he crashes. And this is not just a small car crash, he loses control on the snow and ice and so goes through a full-on, Dukes of Hazzard style wipeout, his car spinning off the road and flying through the air before landing upside down, out of sight, half buried in the snow.

It seems that all is lost, but fortunately for Sheldon, he’s rescued, by someone of indeterminate height, weight and gender, although they’re strong enough to drag him, semi-conscious, out of his car and carry him away, slung over their shoulder in a fireman’s lift.

And so begins Paul Sheldon’s real nightmare.

He regains consciousness some time later, in a bed, his wounds bandaged, arm in a sling, both legs in splints, but he is not, as it might first appear, in a hospital. He’s been rescued by a woman who purports to be his ‘number one fan’.

I know that this is an old film now, but I’m not going to go any further with the plot, because this is such a gem that if you haven’t seen it, then it deserves to be watched without any more in-depth knowledge of where the story is going to go.

My explanation, though, of why I love this so much stems mainly from its sheer minimalism. The film is more complex and densely populated than the book, believe it or not – the film boasts five characters, whereas the book really only has two.

The film has just two main settings (Annie’s house and the Sheriff’s office) where the book is only set in Annie’s home.

I can understand why the filmmakers felt the need to add a few more characters and settings in comparison to the book, (and the addition of Richard Farnsworth and Frances Sternhagen as Buster and Virginia, the Sheriff and his wife who is also the Sheriff’s deputy, is a piece of inspired casting) presumably for the purposes of pacing, but even with these changes, it’s still an extremely closed off, tight world, one that is entirely Annie’s domain, and which all helps to contribute to the claustrophobic feel of the film.

It is, essentially, one man’s struggle, not only against himself, but against someone who knows him so well that she’s virtually an extension of himself, in all her malevolent glory.

The character of Annie Wilkes, played in the film by Katy Bates, is clearly suffering not only from an extreme obsession with her favourite author, but is also bipolar and clearly teetering on the edge of insanity. As the film and book draw on, it becomes clear that Sheldon isn’t the first of her victims.

Bates’ performance was so compelling, in fact, that she won an academy award for it in 1990, making it the only King adaptation so far to win an Oscar, and Bates the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress in a horror or thriller.

She frequently appears on ‘most scary villain’ lists on the Internet, and this is I think mostly because, for the majority of the film, she seems so ordinary. A bit kooky, sure (who, in the twentieth century, abhors swearing and uses words like ‘cockadoodie’?) but still just a slightly quirky middle-aged woman who comfort eats Cheetos in bed and who lives alone.

But her outward veneer of normality is hiding a deep dark lake of malevolence which is roiling just beneath the surface and that’s where the real terror lies and why we find her so appalling and believable as a character. At its core, we all fear that we, or people we know, struggling with our own emotions, our own mental health, might actually turn out to be like her.

And in some ways, that’s more terrifying than any superhumanly strong Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees type character, Satanic worshipper or alien invader you might find in other horror films.

So, in short, Misery is a mesmerising film, with relatable characters who struggle with their own motivations and impulses, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing to do so. You’ll find yourself caring about them.

Even a poor old oogy mess like Annie Wilkes.

Watch it. You won’t regret it.

Pea.