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The Terror Comeback

The Terror Comeback: “Misery” (1990)

Chilling to the Bone: A Deep Dive into the Terrifying World of ‘Misery’ (1990).

Misery Review
Columbia Pictures / Castle Rock Entertainment

In this column, Zofia Wijaszka reviews forgotten, underrated, and “hidden gems” horror films that deserve a new audience’s attention and post-watch conversation. The Terror Comeback’s goal is to celebrate the horror genre, both the genre in the cinema and on television.

Misery Review: An Enduring Masterclass in Horror

While Rob Reiner’s Misery, based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, is far from being a hidden horror gem, it’s worth reminding Nerdspin readers of this wintery, chilling classic. Misery is one of those horror films that the Academy recognized back in 1991; after all, Kathy Bates, rightfully so, won an Oscar for her fantastic, horrifying performance as the number one fan of Annie Wilkes.

Misery Review
Columbia Pictures / Castle Rock Entertainment

The film tells the story of a former nurse Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) who saves writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan) following a tragic vehicle accident. It just so happens that the woman is a huge fan of Sheldon’s body of work. Anne takes Paul to her remote cottage to recuperate, but things escalate as Anne’s devotion becomes ominous after learning that Sheldon killed off her favorite character from the famed book series. The woman becomes increasingly controlling and cruel as Paul plots his escape. Things only escalate further, especially after Wilkes compels the writer to alter his novel to suit her visions.

The unease is palpable from the start of Misery and only grows stronger as Anne’s behavior befalls more violently. The audience can easily sense Paul’s terror as it seeps through the screen. The camera work additionally contributes to the spooky atmosphere. Dramatic close-ups of Anne’s face, especially when she’s angry, make it feel outright immersive; it’s almost as if the audience is right there with Paul, chained to the bed, and forced to endure Annie’s horrific outbursts of wrath.

Columbia Pictures / Castle Rock Entertainment

It’s easy to be at the edge of the seat and remain there throughout the viewing of Misery. We continually root for Paul, who, despite his circumstances, attempts to find a way out. We strain our faces, wincing in pain, much like Sheldon; it’s not difficult to envision it reverberating through his body as Caan’s character scours Annie’s house when she’s gone. Despite the set being largely confined to Wilkes’ guest bedroom and the woman’s house, the storyline is never dull, but on the contrary; it has its hooks into the audience from the beginning to the dramatic end. 

Misery is one of those films that includes not only a terrifying scenario but is also relatable for writers out there. Reiner, in a way, represents every writer’s worst fear. In the film, Annie forces Paul to listen to her constant critique of his newest, unpublished manuscript. The man can’t get away from it; he’s physically unable to because he’s recovering from the accident. It’s not hard to imagine it must be hard to heal while you’re constantly critiqued. As Annie reads on, her rage grows deeper, and she is content to reflect it on Paul’s body; refusing to give him meds or downright inflicting pain.

Columbia Pictures / Castle Rock Entertainment

Even though it’s now been 33 years since Misery premiered, one cannot possibly imagine a different actress portraying vicious and hot-headed Annie. Bates does an outstanding job of depicting a woman who is completely infatuated with the concept of her beloved writer. The actress, well known for her appearances in Fried Green Tomatoes and Dolores Clairborne, makes an excellent pairing with Caan; the actors bounce off each other, carefully crafting a toxic, menacing dynamic between a writer and his “number one fan”. Amidst a frightening tale and superb performances, there is also a story about the fine line between being an adoring fan and an overbearing, obsessive one. Annie Wilkes and Paul Sheldon’s characters further provoke discussion of this aspect post-viewing. 

Misery is an excellent adaption of the similarly exceptional novel. Bates’ role cannot possibly be forgotten, so cannot be Caan’s. The film remains a classic must-watch and is an especially great position for a cold, long, winter evening. 

Grade: A

Misery is currently streaming on Max. 

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