Misery (1990) dir. Rob Reiner
Starring: Kathy Bates, James Caan, Richard Farnsworth, Lauren Bacall
Its obvious 'Misery' is not the work of a genre director or even anyone with any experience with horror. Rob Reiner’s work on Stephen King’s intense novel is workmanlike, unflashy, but anchored by William Goldman’s tightly plotted script and two fine lead performances. After 19 years 'Misery' remains a highly watchable light horror film for people who don’t like horror films.
It’s a classic Stephen King set-up, a high concept picture which began from King’s own neuroses as an author dealing with the confining feeling of his audience’s expectations. King writes himself into the character of Paul Sheldon (James Caan), a romance novelist excited because he’s just completed his first non-romance novel, a cathartic feeling of freedom as an artist. But when his car runs off a snowy road in the mountains with his manuscript, he becomes face to face with the greatest challenge of his life.
He wakes up from consciousness in the spare bed of Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), Sheldon’s #1 fan, a Susan Boyle-like spinster and shut in who lives vicariously through Sheldon’s romance heroine, Misery. In just seven minutes King, Reiner and Goldman establish the rules of Sheldon’s shut-in world. With his legs broken, in the middle of nowhere in a snowstorm, it’s the same narrative shackles King loves to revel in. Whether it’s the car in 'Cujo', or the Overlook Hotel in 'The Shining', its a Stephen King world with characters isolated in spaces and a psychological and physically duel to the death.
Goldman uses King’s novel as a jumping off point effectively detailing the common sense predicament for both Annie and Paul. He finds the right amount of details to weave into the struggle and paying them effectively throughout the film. The opening shot of the wine glass, cigarette and match is no coincidence, a clever detail which serves two narrative purposes 1) the symbol of Sheldon’s accomplishment as an author and 2) the instrument which Paul uses to defeat Annie.
It was Barry Sonnenfeld’s last picture as a cinematographer, and he employs a very ungenre-like bright and flat lighting scheme for a horror flick. Under someone else’s watch Annie’s home would be a nourish, Norman Bates-like layer lit with deep shadows and gritty textured surfaces. Most of the film is played in daytime, in a warm, quaint and protective home, counter-playing the madness residing inside.
Reiner’s inexperience with the genre is visible. His execution of the suspenseful moments are adequate, because of Goldman’s well-timed plotting and Caan and Bates’s perforamnce. And so it takes only the bare minimum to pay off the half a dozen key set pieces. Though we can’t help but think how a John Carpenter, or Roman Polanski or even an M. Night Shyamalan would have done with say, the hobbling scene, or the dinner table scene when Paul tries to poison Annie. With Reiner’s visual style, the suspense feels like an artificial injection of fear, a cinematic suspense, manufactured from editing and the nature of the concept as opposed to a pure visceral horror.
“Misery” remains a fun movie to this day in part because of Reiner's funny bone and his desire not to take the film too seriously. The wink of self-acknowledge allows mainstream audiences to enjoy being scared - a disposable kind of horror film which leaves you immediately and doesn’t give you nightmares.
“Misery” is available on Blu-Ray from MGM Home Entertainment