In the past, if asked to name my favourite horror movie I would have floundered for words. “Does DreamWorks Scared Shrekless count?”, I may have pondered. My detachment from the horror genre was partly because of my debilitating squeamishness. It was mostly due to having been born with genetic wimpiness.
When I was ten my dad showed me the one-minute trailer for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). For months afterwards I would wake in the middle of the night whining about nightmares. It is somewhat ironic then that it would be a different adaptation of a Stephen King novel that would give rise to my horror awakening. Rob Reiner’s Misery (1990) was this very film.
Let me set the scene.
Caught in a blizzard on the way back to his publisher’s office, writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is left severely injured in a car crash but is soon rescued by Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates). Little does he know that Annie is his psychotic “number one fan” who, instead of nursing him back to health, will keep him hostage in her isolated house. Here she will force him to write a new book bringing her favourite Sheldon character Misery Chastain back to life.
At times Kathy Bates plays the role of Annie, the delusional nurse with a murderous past, almost a little too well. It is no wonder that she won an Oscar for Best Actress for her performance. During her frenzied manic episodes, the low-angle shots and close-ups drag you emotionally right into the position of the helpless Paul who is strapped to the bed and unable to escape.
Her acting is scary enough, but the musical score heightens the audience’s fear further. The theme used for the character of Annie starts as an eery and broken piano lullaby, creating a feeling of complete unease and foreboding every time it repeats.
Don’t get me wrong, there are moments of intense gore in the film (the infamous sledgehammer moment cough cough), but the film’s appeal is mostly psychological. In the rare instances that Annie leaves Paul alone in the house, you are left biting your nails as he whizzes around in his wheelchair, searching for a means of escape. “She’s going to come back!” you have the uncontrollable urge to shout, disappointed by your own cliché.
Recently, I watched Aneesh Chaganty’s thriller Run (2020) which revolves around a paralysed girl trapped in the house by her controlling mother. I was struck by how much the film mirrors Misery and upon further investigation, I discovered that Chaganty did in fact take inspiration from the film. There is something inherently terrifying about a handicapped protagonist trying to escape an isolated and remote setting and Misery has been influential in setting the foundations for this horror trope where vulnerability and obsessive love collide.
Although Misery is incredibly tense throughout, it has many moments of black comedy too. “Throw it all out” Annie demands, unhappy with the draft of Paul’s new chapter, “Except for that part of naming the gravedigger after me, you can leave that in”.
The movie is almost like a perverted rom-com, with Annie as the doting but deranged girl entrapping her darling Paul in a dysfunctional relationship. At times he even plays along, pretending to have fallen for her so that she might let her guard down.
When I am asked now to name my favourite horror movie I will reply “Misery” without hesitation. Misery has not turned me into a horror lover as such, but it showed me that there is so much more to the horror genre than the excessive violence I used to associate it with. Thanks to Misery I am no longer an anti-horror die-hard, you could almost say that I’m the film’s number one fan…
Featured Image Credit: Columbia Pictures
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