The Film: 4.5/5
Misery was never intended to be a rote horror film. It was based on a novel that internationally famed author Stephen King considered his most personal creation and had the unmistakably impressive pedigree of filmmaker Rob Reiner – in the midst of a legendary hot streak that began with his 1984 directorial debut This is Spinal Tap and would end ten years later with the critically-derided flop North – and screenwriter William Goldman, himself a celebrated author who previously collaborated with Reiner on the 1987 film version of his novel The Princess Bride, making it a celluloid reality. King had been reluctant to sell the screen rights to Misery, but his eventual, and inevitable, capitulation soon resulted in one of the best adaptations of his novels ever produced for the big screen, and by far one of the screen’s all-time great suspense thrillers.
Here we are, seventeen years into the 21st century, and anyone who has ever spent time on social media or in a chatroom or other online forum could say they encounter a person like Annie Wilkes at least once in their travels down the information superhighway. Wilkes is one of King’s most diabolical human creations, a demon hiding behind a mask of superficial downhome hospitality and starry-eyed fanaticism who nonetheless requires endless satisfaction from the artists she admires obsessively. In this case, the object of her disturbing affection is Paul Sheldon (James Caan, one of the last actors to be considered for the role and who in turn delivers one of the finest performances of his stories career), the author of a series of romantic fantasies starring his resilient heroine Misery Chastain.
In the words of his own literary agent Marcia Sindell (Lauren Bacall), the success of the Misery novels has bought Sheldon a college education and braces for his daughter, two houses, and floor seats for the New York Knicks, but the writer has long desired to put the series behind him and strike out for greener creative pastures. Thus, he decides that the latest Misery novel will not only be the final one, but it will be the one that delivers his best-selling character to her final reward. After he completes the ultimate adventure of Misery at a secluded hotel in Colorado (part of his writing ritual for years), Paul begins to make the journey back home to New York, but his car skids off the icy roads during a blizzard and he is left for dead. Luckily, fate sends him a savior in the form of…. oh crap, it’s Annie Wilkes.
Misery was only nominated for one Academy Award, being Kathy Bates in the Best Actress for a breakthrough performance as Wilkes that transcended both its origins and a genre that is often looked down upon by the Oscar voting snobs to take home the golden statuette. A relative acting unknown with a handful of minor film and television credits to her name, Bates (a former roommate of Holly Hunter, Frances McDormand, and Sam Raimi) was recommended by William Goldman himself for the role. Caan may have received top billing on the film, but Bates is unquestionably the star of the show. The stuff of legend, her performance as Annie transforms King’s nightmarish psychopath – one of the most terrifying and inhuman in his canon - into an all-too-realistic monster who allows enough cracks in her armor to display the single shred of wounded humanity still lurking beneath a human flesh suit so authentic and accomplished that not even Leatherface and Buffalo Bill could top it.
As luck (or some other force in the universe that clearly has no sense of irony) would have it, Wilkes happens to be in the area at the time of Paul’s accidents and manages to pull him out of the wreck and spirit him back to her quaint farmhouse where she administers to his injuries in between bouts of verbal diarrhea focused on her obsessive Misery fandom. Paul is appreciative of Annie’s assistance and care at first, and as a demonstration of his gratitude he allows her to read the unpublished manuscript of the final untitled Misery novel. Although excited to be granted something she considers a great honor, Annie is less than thrilled when she finishes the book and discovers Misery’s tragic fate. Seeing it as a betrayal of everything she had come to expect from Paul and his writings, Annie furiously turns on her hero and shit starts to get really real.
Despite having appeared in some of the greatest films of the preceding three decades, James Caan only accepted the role of Paul Sheldon after every bankable male movie star in the industry turned it down flat. Since the part requires the poor sap who takes it on to spend most of their screen time confined to a bed and submissive to the will of an unhinged female captor, it would have taken an actor willing to part with his vanity for the sake of a strong acting challenge to do the Sheldon character justice as a flesh-and-blood embodiment for the screen. Intense physicality long being one of his dominate traits as an actor, Caan dispensed with most of the qualities that made him a star (apart from his roguish charisma, which thankfully remains in Misery) to give one of the best performances of his career.
He succeeds in selling the helplessness of Paul Sheldon, but he convinces in displaying the man’s slowly-revitalized cunning that he will need to escape Annie’s clutches once she demands that he write a new Misery novel, just for her, that brings the heroine back to life, because she will likely kill him if he doesn’t acquiesce. Then again, Annie is just insane enough to kill him even if he writes the book because she has it in her sick little mind that the two of them are meant to be together forever. Caan immerses himself in the character’s ordeal and communicates Paul’s slow-building fury with restraint and conviction, preferring to let his eyes or terse dialogue delivery let the audience in on what our beleaguered hero is planning while he’s confined to his bed or metaphorically chained to a typewriter purchased for him by his number one nut job admirer.
If I’ve made the plot of Misery sound too serious, just know that Reiner and Goldman took the original King novel and stripped away a little of its intensity and most of its gore (the “hobbling” scene was far more graphic and bloody on the printed page), but in the process they wisely retained its macabre black comedy which primarily stems from the Wilkes character and the folksy (and often cringeworthy) colloquialisms she uses to express herself, even when she’s flying into a violent, unholy rage at the slightest offense.
According to an interview conducted with the director exclusively for this latest Blu-ray release of Misery, Reiner watched every Alfred Hitchcock thriller he could get his hands on while prepping his own excursion into the world of cinematic suspense. As the final film clearly demonstrates, Rob learned much from his impromptu education in the Cinema Du Hitch, and with the help of cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld (who make his own directorial debut the next year with the smash hit The Addams Family, and a few years later become one of Hollywood’s top directors with the Men in Black franchise) employing a string of distinctive camera angles and close-ups to heighten the claustrophobic tension and visually draw out more of the morbid humor in the source material.
The iconic sounds created by Hitchcock’s favorite composer Bernard Herrmann are echoed in the music score composed by Marc Shaiman (who would go on to score several of Reiner’s future films as well as both Addams Family features for Sonnenfeld), a classical treat that deftly weaves white-knuckle thrill cues with more emotionally engaging pieces that are meant to underscore Sheldon’s mental and physical ordeal and briefly expose the pathetic vulnerability buried deep inside Annie Wilkes. Editing suite veteran Robert Leighton began his career working for cult cinema icons like Brian Trenchard-Smith (Stunt Rock) and the late Duke Mitchell (Gone with the Pope) before seizing the Herculean task of whittling the mammoth amount of printed footage from the filming of Reiner’s debut This is Spinal Tap into the comedic masterpiece in which it now exists. Cutting Misery didn’t pose as much of a challenge, but Leighton easily creates a rhythm with Reiner’s scenes that propels the narrative with momentum that never feels rushed and makes the 108-minute running time practically fly by.
The film’s sparse in-camera special effects were created by Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero, and Howard Berger at a time when their company KNB EFX was only a few years old. Most of their efforts were reserved for the final showdown between Paul and Annie, but a lot of work went into realizing the hobbling scene – the moment in Misery that no one ever seems to forget, and for very good reason. Nine years later, KNB would return to the world of Stephen King for The Green Mile – another worthwhile adaptation of the author’s work from Reiner’s production company Castle Rock Entertainment.
The supporting cast features strong turns from Richard Farnsworth (The Straight Story) as the small-town sheriff investigating Paul’s disappearance, Frances Sternhagen (who would go on to co-star sixteen years in another classic King adaptation – Frank Darabont’s 2007 film version of the author’s novella The Mist) as his wife/deputy, and the aforementioned Bacall putting in a small but welcome of screen time as Paul’s concerned agent. The late J.T. Walsh appears here very briefly in an uncredited bit part as a state trooper and would reteam with Reiner two years later as the conflicted Lt. Col. Markinson in A Few Good Men.
Misery was first released on Region A Blu-ray by MGM in late 2009 in a movie-only edition that relegated the supplements to a bonus DVD copy of the 2007 Collector’s Edition. Scream Factory’s release keeps both the film and the accompanying extras on the same disc and presents the main feature in a top-notch 1080p high-definition correctly framed in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio that was sourced from a recent 4K resolution scan of original film elements. The transfer from the MGM Blu-ray was so good that it didn’t much room for improvement, but Scream’s visual presentation regardless boasts a pleasurable and authentic color palette, notably improved picture details, and a low and filmic amount of grain. The sparse production design and wintry exteriors really shine through the HD bump. Print damage is nonexistent.
Neither audio option is suitable for showing off the sonic majesty of your home theater system, so the choice between the English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround and 2.0 stereo tracks only depends on what you happen to be viewing the film. Both tracks feature strong and audible dialogue and ambient effects that ramp up the tension and thrills in both the quieter and busier moments and skillfully integrate Shaiman’s score among the other elements of the mix without creating distortion or necessitating manual volume increase. English subtitles have also been provided.
Most of the supplements included on the Scream Factory Blu-ray were ported over from the 2007 DVD, except for new interviews with director Reiner (37 minutes) and special effects creator Greg Nicotero (26 minutes). Reiner provides a solid overview of the project’s history, starting with the origins of his own careers in acting and filmmaking and quickly cutting to the making of Misery. He discusses the early days of Castle Rock, how it was saved by Ted Turner, casting the film, working with Barry Sonnenfeld, gaining King’s trust to make Misery, and more. Nicotero’s comments stick mostly to the creation of the effects for the infamous hobbling scene and the violent finale, but he also shares some warm recollections of his time on the shoot and the respect and affection he and his team felt for their collaborators (especially Bates, who showed up to her first make-up session quoting lines from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, which Nicotero, Kurtzman, and Berger worked on early in their careers).
The rest comes from the earlier MGM DVD, starting with solo audio commentary tracks from Reiner and Goldman. Some of what the director discussed in his new interview is discussed in greater detail on the commentary, but many other fascinating stories of the film’s creation are shared with warmth and amusing candor. On the other hand, Goldman’s track could have used another participant or at the very least a moderator because it is dry and full of gaps of silence. When he is speaking though, he drops the occasional nugget of wisdom regarding the process of working in Hollywood or anecdote from the production of Misery. Goldman’s comments likely would have been better edited in with Reiner’s commentary, or cut down and presented as an audio interview.
“Misery Loves Company” (30 minutes) is a more basic retrospective documentary where Reiner and Goldman are joined for interviews about the production by Caan, Bates, Sternhagen, and Sonnenfeld. Behind-the-scenes footage from the shoot is edited in with their contemporary perspectives. The film’s composer and the creation of his excellent score are the focus of the shorter featurette “Marc Shaiman’s Musical Misery Tour” (14 minutes).
Five even briefer featurettes – “Diagnosing Annie Wilkes” (9 minutes), “Advice for the Stalked” (5 minutes), “Profile of a Stalker” (6 minutes), “Celebrity Stalkers” (5 minutes), and “Anti-Stalking Laws” (2 minutes) – assemble interviews with multiple psychiatrists, law enforcement professionals, and other real-life experts into a series of discussions on topics related to the subject matter of Misery.
Wrapping up the supplements are two theatrical trailers (5 minutes), including one aimed at attracting audiences during the Christmas movie season. The reversible cover sleeve features new art on one side and the original poster design on the other.
Twenty-seven years after it first rocked unprepared theatrical audiences, Misery remains a taut and crafty suspense thriller, one of the best screen adaptations of a Stephen King terror tale, one of Rob Reiner’s finest films as a director, and a stellar acting showcase for the immensely talented James Caan and Kathy Bates. A classic of the genre is done great justice by Scream Factory’s terrific new Blu-ray release with its stunning high-def transfer and bountiful supplements both new and old. This edition comes highly recommended.