The King of Summer: Misery (1990)
It's rare for a horror movie to garner much attention at the Academy Awards and even more rare for a horror film based on a Stephen King novel to do so. Outside of 1994s The Shawshank Redemption and 99s The Green Mile, the only other adaptation to receive such fanfare was Rob Reiner's masterful version of Misery starring James Caan and Kathy Bates. Sure, Misery only received one nomination in total, in this case in the Best Actress category, but it's also the only King picture to ever win an Oscar. Awards aside, Misery is one of the most successful adaptations in that it accurately represents the source material (outside of one gruesome scene) better than most movies to come from the prolific author's work.
Rob Reiner, a director known mostly for his comedy, took a dark turn here, crafting his finest outing behind the camera in my estimation. The story starts innocently enough, as these tales usually do, with a famed writer leaving his Colorado hotel room having just finished what he hopes is a return to form for his writing career. Having started as a “serious” writer he became trapped in a cycle of writing period romances featuring a woman named Misery Chastain and her trials and tribulations. Paul Sheldon, played with a wit and fear by James Caan (The Godfather, Thief) soon finds himself driving through the mountains in the midst of a blizzard and things go about as well as you can guess. He careens off the road, totaling his Ford Mustang and is in pretty bad condition, but luckily an anonymous stranger rescues him from the wreck.
That anonymous stranger turns out to be none other than Annie Wilkes, Paul Sheldon's self professed number one fan and Silver Creek, Colorado's resident Misery expert. Kathy Bates (Titanic, About Schmidt) rocks the foundations of horror cinema here, giving not only the best performance of her career but one of the best in the genre overall. The Oscar she won was more than deserved, as she's able to bring a reality to her performance that few others could. With her certain, folksy way of speaking (Cock-a-Doodie) and outward joy in caring for Sheldon, Wilkes starts off as one of the more likeable characters in a King story but that fondness erodes to reveal a psychopathic force of obsession that erupts throughout the picture. She becomes increasingly abusive towards her ward with threats of violence and even depressive episodes that really let Bates shine.
Meanwhile outside the cabin the search for Sheldon brings together some top flight actors from a range of genres. Lauren Bacall gives a great understated performance as Sheldon's literary agent, and even though she's not in the picture all that much, she leaves an impression on the viewer. Sheldon clearly isn't just a client, but also a close friend and she sells that friendship for all to see. The local police in Colorado also leave a lasting impression as the local Sheriff, played with a determination and sweetness by Richard Farnsworth (The Straight Story) and his wife lead up the investigation. They're a lovely couple that you can easily see as a blueprint for Marge and Norm Gunderson in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo from a few years later. Farnsworth is wonderful here, doing all the detective work he can handle and doing so with a smile - he's sure that Sheldon survived the crash and will stop at nothing to find him.
Back at the cabin, Sheldon is desperately trying to escape, something that will prove quite difficult with the two broken legs he sustained in the crash. His determination however is palpable as Wilkes begins her downward spiral into madness that holds both Sheldon and the audience hostage. Not pleased with the harsh language found in Sheldon's manuscript, she forces him to burn it and start writing a new book, Misery's Return. Having killed off Misery in his last novel, Wilkes is devastated and demands he bring her back by any means necessary. And so the second act of the picture goes on as a writing clinic with Wilkes giving Sheldon her notes and bringing the novel to fruition. This easy peace doesn't last as Sheldon leaves the room via a lockpick any chance he can.
From a technical standpoint, Misery is one of the best in the genre. Rob Reiner, adapting his second King story after Stand By Me, clearly has a grasp of the author's material. He brings a warmth to the proceedings when needed and allows an icy chill to envelope the picture when called for. Adding to the prestige is Barry Sonnenfeld in the role of cinematographer - the angles used never feel uncalled for and lend a simple beauty to Misery that's hard to compare to anything outside of The Silence of the Lambs. It's a story that's recently been adapted into a stellar Broadway play as well, with Bruce Willis making his New York stage debut in the Paul Sheldon role, and Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne, Scream 2) rising to great heights. It's an effective adaption overall but still can't compare to what was achieved by Reiner & Co.
Very few scenes in a horror film can compare to the now infamous hobbling sequence that's been shown countless times on various horror highlight reels. Sheldon wakes up one day to find himself strapped down on the bed with Wilkes lugging a sledgehammer into the room. She's none too pleased with his escape attempts and relays the story of the old Kimberly Diamond Mine. Thieves and deserters were kept in line with a process called hobbling where they were crippled just enough to still be effective workers. So with a swing of the hammer she gruesomely hobbles Paul, shattering both ankles beyond repair. It's a harrowing sequence thanks to the practical effects that hold up to this day and the most insane part is that this sequence was actually toned down from the novel where Annie swings an ax instead. It's the most memorable scene in the film and for good reason, it's not just a great display of effects, but a study in great acting as Caan and Bates go toe to toe like a classic prizefight.
Misery is a film that has been mostly forgotten over the years, rarely being mentioned amongst the greats, and that's a damn shame. It's one of the best adaptations of a King novel in how much it gets right and the filmmaking techniques it brings to the table. With assured direction by Reiner and a steady hand behind the camera by Sonnenfeld, it's a horror/thriller with zero down moments, constantly ratcheting up the tension. Incredibly effective, with performances that stick with you, Misery is an all-timer in the long line of Stephen King movies.