“I’m your number one fan.”
Innocent compliment or deranged admission? Thanks to Annie Wilkes, the wild-eyed, romantic potboiler-loving villain of Misery, the expression will always come off a bit creepy. Perhaps that’s unavoidable these days given the rise of toxic fandoms, yet before internet echo chambers bred hyper-obsessives en masse, Rob Reiner’s 1990 adaptation of the Stephen King novel plumbed the horrors of unhinged celebrity worship.
Thirty years later Misery is memorable enough as a brisk two-hander willing to get loony, though I can’t imagine there’d be much to fuss over without its prime ingredient: Kathy Bates. Her mercurial performance as the infamous nurse Annie is the film’s backbone, elevating what might’ve been a single-note psycho-thriller into a layered portrait of madness and authorial anxiety.
An understated James Caan plays Paul Sheldon, a novelist intent on retiring from the cheap historical romance novels that have brought him fame and fortune for a more distinguished literary career writing gritty realist fare. Lauren Bacall makes a brief appearance as Paul’s no-nonsense agent, but the writer is swiftly plucked out of his literary milieu after a snowy car accident nearly kills him. Annie, a local nurse, fishes Paul out of the wreckage and takes him to her remote cottage till the roads are clear and the phone lines reconnected. His legs mangled and puffy, Paul is bedridden and completely reliant on Annie, though it’s not too long before her true intentions are revealed.
Kathy Bates, primarily a stage actor before her Misery breakout role, won an Oscar that year for her manic performance. Horror movies hardly ever get the credit they deserve among that body of voters, but Bates’s win marked an exception to the rule. Alternating between gushing admirer and raw-nerved revenge-seeker, Annie bursts with contradictions. Bates imbues her character with an unsettling intensity; she seems to tower over her hostage, looming over the camera like a hulk despite only standing at 5ft 3in. One moment she’s clutching her chest like a drunk schoolgirl and professing her love for Misery Chastain, the heroine of Sheldon’s popular Victorian-era series, the next she’s going berserk and issuing death threats when she finds out that Misery is killed in the latest book. Imprisoning Paul and forcing him to resurrect Misery by writing a new novel under her supervision is Annie’s way of exerting authorship over a beloved narrative. It’s fan servicing taken to a literal extreme – or perhaps some sort of karmic payback for Paul’s devaluation of “chick lit”.
Impressed by Reiner’s emotionally rousing Stand By Me adaptation, Stephen King refused to sell the rights to Misery to anyone else. The director’s humanistic sensibility and background in comedy vibed well with the novel’s gallows humor and its relatively empathetic depiction of Annie. In any case, Reiner doesn’t take any big directorial swings, nor does he veer away from the novel in any significant way. Misery is a straightforward adaptation smartly executed to keep us tense and on our toes throughout Paul’s various escape attempts. I’m inclined to dismiss the scary-silly music that swells each time Annie gets mad as corny and dated, but it’s also goofy in a way that acknowledges the absurdity of the situation. Horrifyingly hilarious or hilariously horrifying? Either works when a deranged fan keeps you locked away for months just because you ruined her favorite story.
From Robert De Niro to Michael Douglas, several big-name actors were approached for the role of Paul Sheldon, but only Caan took the bait. I imagine these other leading men found it hard to swallow the idea of playing a passive victim to a female psychopath neither sex-crazed nor conventionally attractive. This was the era of erotic thrillers after all, and movies about murderous female stalkers like Fatal Attraction had already left their mark.
But Misery was different. In placing a bizarrely childish, mad spinster in the spotlight, it had more in common with the campy Grande Dame Guignol movies of the 60s and 70s than it did with the sleek, sleazy chillers popular at the time. Grandmothers aren’t supposed to be killers, yet the knife-wielding biddies of hagsploitation cinema proved otherwise. Likewise Annie, a virginal nerd who refuses to swear, shoots a bullet through a sheriff’s belly and smashes Paul’s ankles with two strokes of a hammer without ever blinking an eye. Thirty years on, Misery’s gleefully demented union of innocence and brutality still captivates, even if we’re more attuned to the dark sides of diehards.