Last night I watched Misery for the first time and boy was I glad that I did. Doubling down on hilarity and claustrophobic creepiness, Misery has all the makings as both a classic and as an off-kilter psychological horror. Not only is the movie scary, but it also brings to the forefront a campy hilarity encapsulated almost entirely in Kathy Bates’ then star-turning performance as the psychotic Annie Wilkes. That’s right, folks, get your screen grabs ready because Bates’ facial performance alone is entertainment value to the highest degree.
Probably commenting on the downsides of fan culture associated with pulpy content like romance novels and serialized television, Misery imagines the worst-case scenario that might materialize between a creator and an overbearing fan: being held hostage by them! From the second Bates’ character is revealed hovering over her favorite author, the weary Paul Sherwood played by James Caan as her latest victim, we know she’s not your run-of-the-mill, amiable small town farmer. No, this lady has psycho burned into the fabric of her being and in the blank stare of her eyes. At any second her folksy geniality could switch on a dime into enraged, insecure rambling about being wronged, and indeed this does occur several times throughout the movie! These are the moments I suggest relishing in, especially in one instance where Bates shouts the term “Cockadoodie” so loud you won’t know whether to laugh or be utterly terrified.
But that’s the brilliance of Misery. It embraces its campy qualities—the dutch angles, the hardened lighting, the outrageous dialogue—all while keeping us creeped out rather than distracted by the absurdity of it all. Yes, Annie Wilkes is at times a hilarious character (anyone that goes from sweet and nurturing to outraged and shouting at the drop of a dime should be laughed at), but when we see what she is capable of (that hobbling scene!), we realize we would never ever ever even want to be in mixed company with this lady let alone locked alone in a room with her. And that’s when you get your poms-poms out and serve as James Caan’s personal cheerleader because every fiber of your being wants him to make a grand escape, or more importantly, somehow kill that crazy lady before she harms anyone else.
A movie with a setting this remote almost always is hinged by the performances of some great character actors, and Bates and Caan completely fulfill that role in every respect. Caan plays Sherwood with a modesty and sincerity that really speaks to enormity of his situation. Clearly a smart, creative person, he still chose to cash in on writing a romance franchise but is being held hostage what he deserves? Caan evokes this internal struggle subtly through his performance of confusion and desperation for survival. An honorable mention goes to both the late Richard Fransworth and Frances Sternhagen, who play the skeptical sheriff and his witty wife respectively. Every moment those two are on screen is electric and adds to the almost Fargo-esque levity of the movie.
So, when you’re rummaging through the streamable classics you have queued up, watch Misery whether it’s your first time or a revisit. Either way, Bates’ dubious grin will pull you in, surely solidifying her in your mind’s eye as one of the greats and by extension this movie as an undeniable classic.