Skip to main content

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.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018) (SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop .

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

That’s what people call necromancer’s weather.

The Changes (1975) This adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s novel trilogy carries a degree of cult nostalgia cachet due to it being one of those more “adult” 1970s children’s serials (see also The Children of the Stones , The Owl Service ). I was too young to see it on its initial screening – or at any rate, too young to remember it – but it’s easy to see why it lingered in the minds of those who did. Well, the first episode, anyway. Not for nothing is The Changes seen as a precursor to The Survivors in the rural apocalypse sub-genre – see also the decidedly nastier No Blade of Grass – as following a fairly gripping opener, it drifts off into the realm of plodding travelogue.