"Misery" accomplishes something which Hitchcock achieved in "Psycho" but which very few modern horror films achieve: it entertains without seeming exploitative. Even the movie's most gruesome scene, which ranks up there as one of the more memorably horrifying moments in all of cinema, ends with a laugh that somehow doesn't cheapen the material--maybe because it arises so naturally from the basic situation which the movie takes very seriously. We're not being urged to find the violence itself entertaining, as is the case for so many horror films these days. Rather, the humor is a way of breaking the tension of a desperate, nightmarish scenario. It is, we suspect, what helps the protagonist survive the ordeal.
Like many of the greatest thrillers, "Misery" begins with a bizarre set of coincidences. A bestselling romance novelist named Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is on his way to the countryside to work on his next book when a blizzard causes his car to crash, leaving him severely injured and unable to walk. Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), a retired nurse and obsessive fan who was following him, takes care of him in her house without letting him leave or contact anyone. She is upset that he has recently killed off a central character in his series, and she forces him to write the new book more to her liking, though in total isolation from the outside world. His family and friends fear him dead, but the local sheriff (Richard Farnsworth) is investigating a little more closely.
"Misery" belongs to a unique genre in which a single character is trapped in a small area and spends the entire story attempting to escape. I've been fascinated by this type of story ever since I first read Edgar Allan Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum." With his fine attention to detail, Stephen King has made two notable contributions to the genre: "Misery," and the unfilmable "Gerald's Game" (where a woman spends the entire novel handcuffed to a bed in the middle of nowhere). Everything is topsy-turvy in a story like this. The protagonist must adapt to a weird new set of rules that put a diabolical twist on normal routines. To most people, a house is a mundane setting where you wake up every day and leave without blinking an eye. For a house to become a prison seems almost unthinkable. Stories like "Misery" have the urgency of a nightmare, where the thing you fear most is always on the verge of happening.
In particular, this movie has much in common with the 1962 suspense drama "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" (which I recommend). The basic structure of the story is the same, involving a disabled person in the house of an insane woman, who subjects her captive to physical and psychological tortures while almost everyone on the outside doesn't even know the victim exists. But in the older film, the motives were simpler, rooted in sibling jealousy and old wounds. "Misery" brings the conceit to a new level by making the captive a famous writer and the kidnapper a crazed fan. The movie makes much of the irony that she's a pretty good editor. She's not really sadistic or vengeful, as was the case with the Bette Davis character in "Baby Jane." The tortures she inflicts on Paul are the natural result of her trying to fit him into her bizarre little world.
Kathy Bates won an Oscar for her performance, one of only three horror performances ever to receive that award. (The other two are Fredric March for "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and Anthony Hopkins for "Silence of the Lambs.") One of the best actresses working today, she's fortunate not to have been typecast in this sort of role. She later proved herself quite adept at playing vulnerable women, like the battered wife in "Dolores Claiborne." She brings to the role of Annie a certain earthiness that you don't expect in this kind of role. She plays the character as a woman who doesn't perceive herself as insane, who acts bubbly and cheerful most of the time and seems to view her sudden mood shifts as merely a personal weakness. At times, the movie almost comes off as a demented parody of a normal relationship between a man and woman living together.
The very best of the Stephen King horror movies, "Misery" is a film which I count among my favorites even though it is so intense I sometimes have trouble sitting through the whole thing. With a screenplay by William Goldman, who has a knack for developing bizarre torture scenes (the Nazi dentist torture in "Marathon Man," the Machine in "The Princess Bride"), the movie manages to be scary and classy at the same time--a rare feat for a modern horror picture. Kathy Bates is in my nightmares!