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Well, isn’t that an oogy mess?

Misery
(1990)

(SPOILERS) Misery’s the first time in Rob Reiner’s spotless early run where one becomes conscious of his limitations. It’s a thoroughly, commendably decent adaptation, one in which he elicits outstanding performances from his leads and pushes all the necessary shock buttons, but there’s never that crucial sense of an ability to go the extra mile to make it a truly seminal horror movie. Instead, what it has is a truly seminal villain. Otherwise, it has to settle for punching-above-its-weight journeyman status.

Kathy Bates won the Best Actress Oscar, of course, for Annie Wilkes, the most unnerving screen villainess since Nurse Ratchett in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. A performance subject to a thousand parodies, surely the highest of compliments. Bates’ abilities can’t be understated, but it is also a gift of a part, allowing her to run the gamut of emotions and employ some very particular vernacular. And wield a sledgehammer. There’s always something slightly unnerving about a movie where we’re so encouraged to root for a female character’s demise, particularly through violence; we’re with Murphy in his enraged assault in Cuckoo’s Nest, and we’re entirely with James Caan’s Paul Sheldon here, when he finally busts Annie Wilkes’ head in with a pig.

In some respects, though, Caan’s is the more impressive work; an actor known for his macho hot-headedness (certainly on screen), placed in a position where he’s entirely vulnerable. The actor perfectly digs in to the insolent deference to his captor/host. Given the rollcall of actors considered (most notably Warren Beatty), I think they unwittingly hit the jackpot by having to go way down the list (although both Gene Hackman and Michael Douglas would have been good choices).

I have to admit, I’d forgotten how the B-plot played out, building up the investigation of sheriff Richard Farnsworth (marvellously relaxed and likeable, and winningly complemented by Frances Sternhagen as his wife), at the behest of Sheldon’s publisher Lauren Bacall. Was Goldman subconsciously channelling Stanley Kubrick cruelly killing off Scatman Crothers in The Shining, a character who survived in King’s novel (in the Misery novel, it’s a state trooper who suffers Farnsworth’s fate)? If so, it’s curious that King was effusive in his praise for the adaptation, or perhaps he just didn’t make the connection. It’s a particularly unkind demise, nominally justified in order to provoke Sheldon to find the means of his own deliverance but cruelly bringing to an end the most relatable character in the film.

Goldman goes into some detail in Which Lie Did I Tell? on the back and forth that took place as a prelude to the hobbling scene; in then novel, it’s a particularly gruesome amputation by axe (and cauterising by propane torch – later, Annie indulges such incidentals as cutting off his thumb). Goldman duly incorporated it, blown away by the unexpected horror of the moment. It was only as the scene led to prospective talent turning the role down that he and Reiner (then just the producer) reconsidered. First George Roy Hill told him “Goldman, she lops his fucking feet off. And I can’t direct that”. Beatty, interestingly, said “he had no trouble losing his feet at the ankles, but know that if you did that the guy would be crippled for life and would be a loser”. During this time, they were taking straw polls of Castle Rock staff on whether it was too much; eventually, Reiner and producer Andy Scheinman did a final pass, replacing the axe with a sledgehammer, and Goldman was outraged that they’d ruined the movie (“And you know what? I was wrong”).

It’s curious that he gives “the audience would have hated Annie” as a reason for not doing it per the book; I think they do that quite effectively anyway. I’m sure there were many cheers in cinemas when Sheldon delivers the payoff line “Eat it till you choke, you sick twisted fuck!” Goldman’s adaptation as a whole is first rate and diligent, but rather like Reiner’s direction, it’s solid rather than inspired.

Indeed, the best part of the picture is, really, in terms of standing out at you, the performances – Barry Sonnefeld’s cinematography, in his last such credited before switching to calling the shots, is very nice, but it lacks the flourish he was providing the Coen Brothers about this time – and it’s easy to see why it has lent itself to stage adaptations. There’s the occasionally clunky moment where the actors are unable to overcome the limitations of the material, such as Annie dropping a helpful clue to her shady background (“That’s why I couldn’t remember all the things they were asking me in the witness stand in Denver”), and the shaking the urine bottle and then flicking the lighter fluid are a touch overdone, but again, such theatricality is almost designed for the live performance.

Notably, Misery was only nominated for the one Oscar it won. For Goldman, it marked the beginning of an in-demand renaissance (albeit, none of the results were on a par with his heyday). Reiner had already peaked. Caan proved himself employable. And Bates wouldn’t go wanting for work, but hers was more an F Murray Abraham win than leading to your classic idea of Oscar cachet. The film also cemented the sense that the best results from adapting King would come from his non-supernatural works, underlined by The Shawshank Redemption a few years later. More often than not, King’s horror novels just made an oogly mess.


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