Now seems to be a good time for full disclosure: I am a full-on, balls-out Stephen King geek. I've been reading the master's novels since before I reached my teens (which some would say explains a WHOLE lot) and even when I didn't get every reference or understand all the subtext or get the deeper themes in them, I knew one absolute truth.
They scared the living shit out of me.
And that was enough to know that I loved those books, and somehow realized that my life was going to be - for better or worse - very different from now on. Because that led me to other books, other movies and a greater depth of knowledge about this genre that has become a very tangible force in my life, this love of horror. And the summer I was thirteen, I read a book that introduced me to two very different people; one was a tragic figure who ended up being as much a victim of his own success as he was the circumstances in which he found himself, and the other was the Dragon Lady. A walking nightmare and someone who could curl the toes of Satan himself. Made all the more terrifying because she seemed as real as a fictional character could get, and not just because she had been brought perfectly to life by King, but instead - she felt like someone you could actually meet. Or HAD met and were lucky enough to have never known it. The characters were Paul Sheldon and Annie Wilkes, and the book was Misery.
I point all this out because when we Big Steve fiends heard that Rob Reiner was going to direct the film adaptation, the reaction was, shall we say, less than enthusiastic. Yeah, the man had made some movies. This is Spinal Tap was hilarious and sort of brilliant. The Sure Thing was cute and funny and a good example of its kind. And The Princess Bride - while already seen as a mini-classic - had yet to reach the status it currently enjoys, namely that of The Wizard of Oz of my generation (more or less). So the man was obviously talented beyond simply being the object of Archie Bunker's scorn, and would no doubt make more flicks, and some of them would probably be pretty good.
But a horror movie? A Stephen King horror movie at that? It seemed that the many stories about Hollywood's debauchery and substance abuse were not merely rumors - surely these people had lost their minds. However, there were those who knew better.
One of them was King himself; when he sold the book to Reiner's Castle Rock production company, it included one condition - that Reiner either direct it himself, or, failing that, he at least produce it. Apparently Reiner agreed, and ended up directing despite having originally planned to merely produce it. Stephen King made that deal because he remembered how the adaptation of his novella "The Body", Stand By Me, had turned out, and was impressed with the result. . .and Rob Reiner was the director of that as well. Strangely enough, even having seen that picture and loved it, I still thought there had to be a better choice out there (Stand By Me seemed to be more Reiner's speed, in terms of material). There just HAD to be. I decided that I would watch the movie and give it a fair chance, but was convinced it would end badly for all involved. I would not so much be seeing a much-awaited film as I would be attending the funeral.
As it turns out, crow is not always a horrible meal to eat. Misery kicked me in the nuts, yanked me up off the floor by the hair, and screamed in my face about just how wrong I had been to doubt.
Misery is the story of a highly successful romance novelist, Paul Sheldon (James Caan). He is the author of a series featuring a bosom-heaving heroine named Misery Chastain which has basically given him a life he could have never imagined growing up as a poor slum kid. Problem is, Paul is dying inside. He never intended these books to make him famous to every bored housewife in America, much less become his legacy - he wanted to be taken seriously, to be a "real" author. So he has, in his soon-to-be-published novel, killed Misery off in the climax, hoping it will set him free. And as he leaves the Colorado cabin he has written in for years, having completed a new novel which is nothing like his previous work, he finds that maybe he finally is. Alas, that is when the storm comes in, hard and fast and violent, and Paul loses control of his car on the twisty mountain roads. Crashes, out of sight of the road. And is going to die, broken and alone.
But he doesn't. Someone happens along and saves his life. A woman who lives nearby, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), rescues him and takes him to her home. She starts to nurse him back to health (luckily for Paul, she actually is a retired nurse), paying particular attention to his broken legs, promising that when the raging storm passes, she will call for help.
As the days pass, a few things become clear. Annie is Paul's "number-one fan" and has all the original editions of his "Misery" series, and has read them over and over again. Also, she is completely, dangerously insane. Not slightly unbalanced or just a little odd is Annie Wilkes. No. She is out of her fucking gourd. Which is bad for Paul and gets worse when she gets the latest Misery novel. It is understating the matter to say that she is none too thrilled about her beloved Miss Chastain's untimely demise, or at all pleased with the man responsible for killing her. The man who, helpless and terrified, is now at her mercy.
But Annie has a plan, a way for Paul to make it all right: he will simply bring Misery back to life. And now he is held prisoner by his most famous creation yet again, but this time the stakes are considerably higher than reaching the #1 spot on The New York Times bestseller list.
Again, like the novel, this movie works because nothing in it is completely out of the realm of reality - it could actually happen, yet it horrifies and unsettles us for that very reason. Reiner surrounded himself with a perfect crew of co-conspirators here, such as cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld (working on a level equal to his films with the Coen brothers) and screenwriting legend William Goldman (working with Reiner again after their last collaboration, the aforementioned and fantastic The Princess Bride), in the first of what would be a number of King adaptations. Then there's the acting.
James Caan really came back with a vengeance here, proving once and for all that the praise and adulation he had recieved for his early work in films like The Godfather was not unfounded. As Paul, he is full of fear and dread in the face of this incomprehensible situation, not to mention a fair measure of steely resolve as he fights for his life. Caan nails it, rejuvenating his career in the process.
And Kathy Bates out of nowhere. Pretty much nobody, except for maybe a few familiar with her theater work, knew who she was or what she was going to give us. Her performance is, in a word, astounding. She is nothing like what I envisioned when I read the novel, but when the movie was over, I knew that I would never read a single sentence of Misery ever again without seeing her face. Bates is pitch-perfect; she puts a human face on madness and evil. In fact, I know a person who refuses to watch anything with Kathy Bates in it for the rest of time eternal because their hatred for her is so palpable and real - that's acting, folks. Her work here gave her a career in movies which is still going strong today, and maybe it's not lead roles, but you can't have enough great character actors out there for my money. Fans may also recall that Ms. Bates won the first Best Actress Academy Award given for a role in a horror movie (Jodie Foster and The Silence of the Lambs would come one year later).
Special mention must also be given to the late Richard Farnsworth, as Buster the local sheriff who is investigating the disappearance of Paul Sheldon. The role was created expressly for the film by Goldman, mostly to move the action out of Annie's house (Misery would, in fact, make an excellent play, if the Broadway crowd could handle it), where virtually the whole movie takes place. Farnsworth is relaxed, charming, and deceptively intelligent here; he creates a character that is all but impossible not to like. Fine work from an even finer actor - he is still missed.
As for Rob Reiner? The guy we were all positive would pull a choke job and ruin another classic King novel? Well, as it turns out, the guy can do horror too. His ability to work well with actors is obviously on display here, but he also shows a real understanding of how to build suspense, the timing needed for such scenes, and when to go for the jugular. I couldn't be happier about being so wholly wrong in my knee-jerk reaction to Reiner's involvement.
The DVD release that's out there is WAY too bare bones for my taste - we could use a documentary, cast and crew interviews, maybe some commentaries - but being the fan that I am, I can deal with it. The movie looks good and sounds good, better than it ever has on the home format, so only having the original trailer is easily overlooked.
I've seen this flick many, many times, and I honestly don't see how it could have been made better. Sure, it could have had more gore, but that wouldn't have necessarily made it better - just gorier. It's an ass-kicking piece of cinema just the way it is. And I hear Stephen King thinks it's pretty groovy, too.