Home Video Hovel: Misery, by David Bax
From the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, a Rob Reiner film was a grade A production. It would be unthinkable, for instance, for him to employ any less than William Goldman to adapt a hot Stephen King property like Misery, or to get Barry Sonnenfeld to shoot it. It’s all the more impressive, than, how discriminating an eye he displayed for casting. The next time around, of course, he’d swing for the fences and connect with Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. In Misery, though, the biggest stars are James Caan (more of a marquee name at the time than he is now) and, in a modest role, Lauren Bacall. The rest of the roles are filled by veteran character actors like J.T. Walsh, Richard Farnsworth and Frances Sternhagen. And, of course, in the role that would change the course of her career and win her an Oscar, Kathy Bates as the provincial, smiling villain, Annie Wilkes. One of the signifiers of a great performance is an inability to imagine anyone else in the part. Bates doesn’t just fully inhabit Annie; she becomes every distinct layer of her, letting anger or obsession transform her face into something suddenly new and terrifying. It’s not an exaggeration to call this one of the greatest performances in cinematic history.
The monster that is Annie Wilkes so occupies the cultural memory of Misery that’s it’s surprising, in revisiting the movie, to discover it’s much more of a mystery than a horror film. At least, for most of the running time, that is. This is chiefly the story of a novelist (Caan’s Paul Sheldon) kidnapped by one of his fans (Bates) while Farnsworth’s local sheriff, Buster, tries to find him. It’s easy to forget just how much of the movie is concerned with Buster’s detective work. That’s no complaint though, as Farnsworth and Sternhagen (as his secretary and wife) are at least a dozen different kinds of charming.
With its snowbound small town setting and Annie’s old house, cluttered with knickknacks, there’s a claustrophobia to Misery, with the exception of the spare bedroom in which Annie installs the injured and immobile Paul. His small bed is surrounded by almost too much space. Reiner uses the ensuing cognitive friction to illustrate Paul’s isolation and to create a sustained tension.
Which brings us back to horror. Misery is light on bumps and jolts (though not completely without them). Instead, Reiner relies on a sense of dread, which he introduces early on and then proceeds to crank up almost imperceptibly throughout. That is where Misery earns its membership in the horror genre. Well, that and the hobbling scene, of course.
Shout! Factory’s transfer is truly lovely, with brilliant colors and sharp contrast and little to no dirt or scratches. The scan was done at 4K and the results are clear in the textural detail. The soundtrack is available in stereo or 5.1 and offers distinct audio for the dialogue, sound effects and Marc Shaiman’s score.
The special features are extensive. There is an audio commentary by Reiner and one by Goldman. There are numerous featurettes, including one on Shaiman’s music and multiple looks at the psychology and legality of stalkers. And there are brand new interviews to be found with Reiner and with special makeup effects artist Greg Nicotero.