MGM // 1990 // 107 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // September 21st, 2009
The tide has come.
"The rain. Sometimes it gives me the blues. When you first came here, I only loved the writer part of Paul Sheldon. Now I know I love the rest of him, too. I know you don't love me, don't say you do. You're beautiful, brilliant, a famous man of the world and I'm...not a movie star type. You'll never know the fear of losing someone like you if you're someone like me."
Paul Sheldon (James Caan, The Godfather) is a successful writer best-known for his Misery novels, a historical fiction franchise that chronicles the life story of a young woman. Though the series his brought Paul fame and fortune, he has grown tired of writing it. His final installment in the series is about to be released, and it concludes with Misery's tragic death. Though Paul's editor (Lauren Bacall, The Big Sleep) is disappointed, the writer insists that it is time to move on. He's ready to work on a new book, and in the winter he travels to a Colorado hotel to work on his first non-Misery project. Unfortunately, on the way back home, Paul is caught in a snowstorm and accidentally wrecks his vehicle. His legs are broken and he comes close to freezing to death in the wreckage, but by some miracle a woman named Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates, About Schmidt) comes to his rescue.
Annie carries Paul back to her house. She says that the roads are all closed and the phones are all dead due to the storm, so she'll have to care for Paul herself. It also turns out that she's one of Paul's biggest fans. Annie is absolutely obsessed with the Misery novels, and she can't wait to check out the latest installment. However, when she discovers that Paul has killed off her all-time favorite character, she goes into a fit of rage. Suddenly Paul's situation turns into a living hell as he is given the option of either becoming Annie's personal literary slave or being forced to endure her many methods of torture. Will Paul survive the grueling weeks ahead of him?
Stephen King is responsible for inspiring some of Hollywood's best (The Shawshank Redemption, The Shining) and worst (Maximum Overdrive, Pet Sematary) films of recent decades. Though his writing has been pretty consistently engaging, when his name is attached to a film you could be getting just about anything. Regardless of the inconsistent track record, Hollywood certainly loves adapting King's works. Considering that there have been over 100 King adaptations at this point, cinema buffs are particularly fond of creating lists of the best and worst King films of all time. One movie that almost never fails to make the "best" side of any such list is Misery, one of the most iconic and genuinely terrifying King adaptations.
King's novel was adapted by William Goldman and directed by Rob Reiner, both of whom were very well-regarded in Hollywood at the time (alas, they have since gone on to unleash a pretty significant amount of mediocre material). The pieces were certainly in place for a very fine film, and the story's basic struggle of noble writer versus evil religious maniac was a classic King showdown. The filmmakers offered the lead role to a wide variety of talented actors (including Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Harrison Ford, and many other A-list stars), but they all passed. It was reported that many of these actors feared that the role of the mostly-disabled Paul was simply too weak, particularly in contrast to the character of Annie. That wasn't a problem for actor James Caan, whose natural strength and masculinity more than compensated for the character's physical impairments.
Great as Caan is, most of the attention indeed went to Kathy Bates, whose terrifying work is so good it's remarkable that she wasn't immediately typecast. As the ultraconservative Annie, Bates gets under your skin with her gratingly adoring mannerisms before revealing her truly psychotic and dangerous side. Undoubtedly inspired by some of the many fans King himself has met over the years, she contains all of the worst attributes of several different types of obsessive fans. Many horror writers are fond of exploiting the fears of others, but King has demonstrated a particular tendency to write stories about his own fears. It would seem that Misery is one of his most intensely personal stories, particularly considering the way he incorporates aspects of his own life into the fabric of the tale. Is Annie the ultimate distillation of his fears? She's certainly frightening enough for me.
Reiner does a nice job of creating a claustrophobic atmosphere within the confines of Annie's home that adds to the intensity of the story. It might be close to unbearable if not for the occasional moments when we break away to visit the Sheriff (a quietly charming Richard Farnsworth), giving us an opportunity to soak in the scenic Colorado setting. The terror in the film is very slow-burning, starting as something only mildly disturbing and carefully building towards full-blown horror. We're given plenty of time to get to know the characters rather intimately, making the climactic confrontational scenes all the more effective. Too many thrillers and horror films jump right into the action without providing sufficient reason for us to care about what is happening. In Misery, the set-up is strong and the payoff is worth it.
Misery benefits from a very solid hi-def transfer, which preserves that natural filmic look of the movie while also offering superb detail and clarity. Facial detail is exceptionally strong despite a few soft shots, and background detail is excellent throughout. Flesh tones are warm and accurate. Blacks are reasonably deep and darker scenes are coherent, though the daytime scenes are the ones that really sparkle. A thin layer of natural grain has been left intact, but it's never distracting or bothersome. The audio is stellar as well, though Misery is honestly quite low-key in terms of sound design. Even composer Marc Shaiman (a fine composer who isn't exactly known for subtlety) turns in a very understated work that attempts to support the proceedings without ever really drawing attention to itself. Though the DVD version included in this set is stellar, this Blu-ray release certainly knocks all standard-def versions out of the park.
Though the film and the transfer are exceptional, I'm pretty peeved by the incredibly lazy manner in which this Blu-ray release has been handled in terms of the supplements. This set provides the feature film on a bare-bones Blu-ray disc, and then repackages the 2007 special edition DVD containing a variety of special features as a second disc. This is pointless and annoying. Sure, you get two audio commentaries (one with Reiner and one with Goldman) and seven making-of featurettes ("Misery Loves Company," "Marc Shaiman's Musical Misery Tour," "Advice for the Stalked," "Diagnosing Annie Wilkes," "Profile of a Stalker," "Celebrity Stalker," and "Anti-Stalking Laws"), but couldn't this stuff have just been ported over to the Blu-ray disc? I'm not digging this, MGM.
My complaint about the supplements aside, of course this set is worth an upgrade. The transfer is excellent, the price is quite reasonable (some online retailers are selling it for about $15), and the film is superb.
Review content copyright © 2009 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Hungarian)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Italian)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Russian)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Thai)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Turkish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* DVD Version