FEATURE: Shocktober - Misery

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here.

Directed by Rob Reiner and scripted by William Goldman, the dream team behind The Princess Bride, Misery is a very different tale of love or, more accurately, obsession. The film follows Paul Sheldon (James Caan), a writer beloved of many for his series of historical romps centred on a character named Misery. Her name proves apt for more than just her own misfortunes as Paul finds that he isn't being taken seriously and wants to branch out into something completely different. However, on the way to deliver his new manuscript, a blizzard descends and he crashes his car in the snow. He is discovered by local woman Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) who drags him, mostly dead, back to her house and nurses him back to health. It's nowhere near rosy though as she quickly reveals herself to be his 'number one fan' and is really not very happy when she discovers Paul has killed off Misery in his latest book.

Stephen King has stated that the novel chronicles his battles with substance abuse through Misery in metaphorical terms, as well as a way to deal with the negative reactions his fans had had to his previous book. I bet he also had one or two creepy fan letters to deal with too. Fandom is a curious and often wonderful thing; one of the best things in the world than to fervently discuss and share something you love with other people. With the arrival of the internet came a place in which fans could get together and talk about their favourite things, whether it's who is shipping Mulder and Scully in the early days of forums or posting endless Sherlock gifs on Tumblr now. Mostly the stuff is harmless and far be it from me to decry it on a site on which I am currently engaged in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer rewatch. 

But there is always the scary element of fandom, the side where it turns obsessive and nasty, turning violently against a person who doesn't share the same interests as you. One only needs to make a derogatory comment about Justin Beiber/Benedict Cumberbatch/One Direction/Kristen Stewart (delete as appropriate) on Twitter to see hordes of fans descend upon you to tell you exactly why you are wrong and just what should violently happen to you in the meantime. Misery the novel was published in 1987 with the film following swiftly after in 1990 so long before the kind of fans you see online today. However, watching the film with this context makes Annie Wilkes even scarier than she already is. People may not go around trapping authors in their houses on a regular basis, but that fanaticism is present and wholly believable.

For me, Misery isn't a great film, but it's an entertaining one that falls just slightly short of excellence. Reiner's direction is often clunky and the editing isn't quite as seamless as it perhaps could have been (I love Reiner; it hurts me a little to say this). There are cutaway shots during conversations that feel unnecessary, close-ups to hands that have clearly been shot separately and inserted awkwardly to give a sense of movement to the more static scenes. Some shots too feel a little long, breaking the tension rather than enhancing it. The film is much more powerful when it has the confidence to rely on the faces of its two excellent leads and Goldman's fine adaptive work to let the story take shape.

The script itself is great fun, mining the macabre elements of the story for a brand of humour that always feels uniquely Goldman's. The interactions between the Sheriff and his wife as they undertake the search for Paul is an endearing distraction from the relentless tension of the scenes with Annie and it helps build a world bigger than just the claustrophobic house. The film also has a great role for the late, great Lauren Bacall too as Paul's literary agent. She represents a world far away from the rural Colorado setting that Paul finds himself very nearly dying to get back to.

However, it is to the two leads that this film rightly belongs. Whilst Kathy Bates deservedly won an Oscar for her efforts (more on her in a bit), I was amazed by the performance that James Caan gives here. In a role that could have been easily overshadowed by his fanatic counterpart, Caan manages to consistently impress with a steely reserve as Paul tries to find his way out of a horrific situation. He constantly shifts in demeanour to react to Annie's mood, going toe to toe with her on more than one occasion. As the film progresses, so too does Paul's desperation, but Caan keeps it reserved, resisting the histrionics that can sometimes rear up in a victim role.

That he manages to do this in what is one of the most blistering performances I've seen anyone give is pretty impressive. Kathy Bates in her dresses and old school Americana home should not be scary on face value, but Annie Wilkes is a lot more tumultuous than her excessive house decorating would imply. Her changeability makes her wickedly unpredictable, for both Paul and the audience, as she veers between a woman adoringly in love to one forced to violence by her own obsessions. 

Yet to dismiss Annie Wilkes as merely insane is to dismiss a huge part of her character. This woman is incredibly, incurably lonely. It doesn't excuse her past or her present actions with Paul by any stretch, but Bates mines this loneliness to ensure that Wilkes never veers into caricature. She feels a very human, very banal sort of villainy that one can find just down the road in the overly-doilied house with all the ceramic animals in the window. And that's what makes her so terrifying as a character. We've seen these people in action, albeit in text form online, where fans have sat threatening people repeatedly for disagreeing with them slightly on the quality of an actor. They're the 'number one fans' who obsess over every little detail. If Annie Wilkes had had the internet, could you imagine the chaos she'd have unleashed?

- Becky

You can check out the full list of Shocktober reviews so far here.

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