Starring Kathy Bates, James Caan, Richard Farnsworth
Directed by Rob Reiner
Distributed by Scream Factory
With so many Stephen King adaptations being produced nearly every year, who could have guessed that 2017 would be a renaissance for fans of the legendary author’s work on both the big and small screen? Not only is there a glut of King media available to audiences, but much of it is – gasp – quite good. There seems no better time to revisit the upper echelon of his filmed material, and director Rob Reiner’s Misery (1990) is unquestionably one of the greats. Firmly anchored by an Academy Award-winning performance from Kathy Bates, Misery is a lengthy exercise in tension that builds and builds until arriving at an explosive climax that gives viewers the catharsis they have waited 100 minutes to receive. Screenwriter William Goldman and Reiner turned King’s visceral story into a lean screenplay, emphasizing the cat-and-mouse interplay between Bates and co-star James Caan. The resulting film captivated (pun intended?) and horrified audiences twenty-seven years ago and, even with the passage of time, proves it can still induce crippling anxiety in newcomers and repeat viewers alike.
Paul Sheldon (James Caan), a world famous romance novelist, has just finished banging away on his typewriter, completing his latest novel, a personal tale outside his usual wheelhouse. He smokes a single cigarette (a tradition) and hits the road, hoping to get out of Silver Creek, CO in time to avoid an incoming blizzard. Paul does not avoid the blizzard, wiping out on the winding mountain road and flipping his car. Injured and unconscious, Paul is saved from the elements by Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), a former nurse who lives in isolation nearby. Lucky for him she just happened to be in the area where he crashed… or maybe luck has nothing to do with it? Annie drags Paul back to her place, sets his broken legs, and begins to get him on the mend.
Paul comes to a couple days later and asks to get in touch with the outside world, however, according to Annie all phone lines are down and the roads are blocked. He’ll just have to be her guest until things get cleared up. And lucky for him, Annie is his “number one fan”, having read and celebrated each of his novels featuring her favorite literary character, Misery Chastain. Paul is initially charmed by Annie’s altruism and affectation for his work, so he agrees to let her read his new manuscript. This act of confidence goes poorly when Annie becomes so offended by Paul’s use of profanity she snaps, scolding him as one would a child. But that is nothing compared to how she responds after reading the latest Misery novel, wherein the character dies at the end. Distraught and beyond delusional, Annie locks Paul up in his room and demands no less than he write her an entirely new novel, bringing Misery back from the dead.
Paul makes every attempt possible to escape or alert the world of where he is, but with broken legs (and soon, worse) and nobody within crawling distance his only hope appears to lie with the local sheriff, Buster (Richard Farnsworth), who just can’t let Sheldon’s case lie fallow. Annie is a wily one, though, and Paul is going to have to outwit this obsessive ogre if he wants to have any chance at survival.
Give the subject matter it seems obvious Misery holds a closer place in King’s heart than most of his work. This is why he resisted repeated attempts to adapt the book for film until Rob Reiner made an inquiry. It was only because Reiner had so successfully adapted Stand By Me (1984) that King made an exception – and, of course, the result is one of the best films in his cinematic oeuvre. As far as King adaptations go, Misery is unparalleled in terms of wringing continued tension out of a screenplay. Reiner builds and builds, constantly teasing his audience with a taste of freedom or reprieve for Paul, each time scuttling hopes until the conflict reaches a fever pitch; then, glorious release. Every man and woman watching cannot help but to live vicariously through Paul in that climactic moment. “Eat it! Eat it till you choke, you sick twisted fuck!”
Bates was suggested to Reiner by Goldman and, really, he could not have cast the role any better. Bates, then relatively unknown, not only conveys the obsession and madness of a delusional fan, but thanks to her, er, heft she looks like a match for any man who doesn’t have his full strength. James Caan is famous for playing tough guys – he’ll always be Sonny Corleone in most eyes – but it’s no stretch to think Bates could easily get the best of him in his fragile state. Annie is a woman of principles and manners, but when Paul strays outside her picture perfect mental imagery she snaps like a twig.
Caan, for his part, does a great job bringing Sheldon to life. His desire to leave Annie’s under any circumstances possible is palpable; unimaginable tension simmers just beneath the surface of his faux smile and appreciation of Annie’s home care. He knows he (literally) doesn’t have a leg to stand on, and rather than be rash about the situation he attempts to ameliorate it whenever possible to prevent Annie from doing him further harm – or worse. Interestingly, Caan was only offered the role after at least a dozen big-name actors turned it down.
Personally, my earliest memory of Misery was during a childhood ritual of peeping over the upstairs bannister, spying as my parents would watch R-rated movies they’d rented from Wherehouse on a Saturday night. During the moment when Annie fires her shotgun for the first and only time, I distinctly recall my dad yelling out, “Ooohhh, you rotten bitch!” All these years later, after a half-dozen viewings of the film, I still share that sentiment.
Touting a “new 4K restoration from original film elements” (which I’ll assume to be a 35mm negative), the 1.85:1 1080p image is a stellar upgrade over previous DVD and Blu-ray editions. The image is immaculate, revealing even more of the minutiae in Annie’s delicate home décor. Film grain moves organically and smoothly, lending a cinematic aesthetic to this pristine picture. Contrast and black levels are both solid and stable, never wavering throughout. The cold, woodsy palette has been perfectly replicated here, too. Unless you are the type to go over transfers with a fine-tooth comb searching for issues, this is exceptional in every way.
An English DTS-HD Master Audio track carries both 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround sound options. Most of the activity comes from the front speakers, and this is mainly a dialogue-driven affair, so either track will get the job done with equal results. Dialogue is hiss-free and clean. Marc Shaiman’s score pulls viewers through a range of emotions, perfectly complementing the tense on-screen action. Subtitles are available in English.
There are two audio commentary tracks present; one with director Rob Reiner, the other with screenwriter William Goldman.
“Interview with Director Rob Reiner” – Reiner discusses his career and the events leading up to adapting “Misery”, with plenty of talk devoted to King’s input, casting, aspirations for his take, and more.
“Interview with Special Make-up Effects Artist Greg Nicotero” – Hear all about how the FX crew put Paul Sheldon through the ringer, including Nicotero’s somber anecdote about how they built and rigged two ankles for the infamous hobbling scene but Reiner only kept one in the finished film.
The remainder of the bonus features comes from MGM’s previous special edition DVD, and with the exception of the first two they’re all disposable. These include “Misery Loves Company”, “Marc Shaiman’s Musical Misery Tour Featurette”, “Diagnosing Annie Wilkes Featurette”, “Advice for the Stalked Featurette”, “Profile of a Stalker Featurette”, “Celebrity Stalkers Featurette”, “Anti-Stalking Laws Featurette”.
Two trailers in HD have also been included.
- NEW 4K Restoration From The Original Film Elements
- NEW Interview With Director Rob Reiner
- NEW Interview With Special Makeup Effects Artist Greg Nicotero
- Audio Commentary With Rob Reiner
- Audio Commentary With Screenwriter William Goldman
- “Misery Loves Company” Featurette
- “Marc Shaiman’s Musical Misery Tour” Featurette
- “Diagnosing Annie Wilkes” Featurette
- “Advice For The Stalked” Featurette
- “Profile Of A Stalker” Featurette
- “Celebrity Stalkers” Featurette
- “Anti-Stalking Laws” Featurette
Wrought with tension from start to finish and cast with exceptional actors, “Misery” is among the very best Stephen King fans could hope to find on home video. Scream Factory’s latest release hobbles previous editions thanks to stunning a/v quality and a couple new bonus features that greatly improve upon MGM’s lackluster features from before.