I know I said this week I'd stick to movies I like that don't get much love, but The Dark Half put me in a Stephen King mood and this was the one that was on my mind so I'm running with it even though it gets PLENTY of love. Refunds are available at the exit.
James Caan is Paul Sheldon, a novelist (the protagonist of a King story is a writer? The devil you say!) who has spent his career writing trashy romance novels. Tired of wasting his talents, he kills off Misery Chastain, the heroine of his series, to focus on writing more serious fare. On a long, snowy drive after finishing his new, serious novel he loses control of his car and gets into a nasty accident. He's rescued by Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), his self-proclaimed number one fan. Turns out Annie is a nurse as luck would have it, and she takes him to her isolated home to care for him. Annie doesn't take kindly to the news that Misery is no more, however, and she's determined to get Paul to bring her back.
Widely considered one of the best adaptations of King's work, Misery truly is something special. Kathy Bates won a well-deserved Oscar for her performance and she's really great, alternately amiable and terrifying. Hers is a true rarity: a character that works even better on the screen than on the page. When we meet Annie in the novel, there's clearly something wrong about her. In the movie, she just seems like a harmless eccentric until she slowly lets that veneer drop. It's sort of the opposite of King's problem with the film version of The Shining, where his major complaint was that Nicholson is full-on bonkers from the very beginning.
While Bates has the showier part, Caan deserves some love too. It can't be easy for such a physical actor to spend almost an entire movie bed-ridden and still sell an audience on both his pain and his progress, but Caan makes it look effortless. The two of them have a fascinating chemistry, as he grows to hate her we can always see it in his eyes but we can also believe that Annie doesn't see it, their reactions to each other never ring false. While it's mostly a two-person show, there are also a few colorful supporting characters, particularly the late great Richard Farnsworth as a small-town sheriff investigating Paul's disappearance.
King has since spoken about the genesis of the story, inspired not only by his sometimes horrifying fan-base but also by his struggles with sobriety, he's referred to Annie as the personification of the drugs and alcohol that were keeping him separated from the rest of the world. The movie is already scary when taken at face value, but viewing it through that particular lens gives it an extra dimension, reminding us how difficult it can be to get out of the grip of substance abuse.
Also, despite taking place almost entirely in a single location it never feels constrained or stagy (even though it's now being literally staged, an adaptation is running on Broadway this year featuring Laurie Metcalf and Bruce Willis). It's an intelligent, frightening movie (if you can get through the infamous sledgehammer scene without wincing or looking away, you're a stronger person than me) highlighted by two stellar performances. There's not much more to be asked from your Scary Movie Month entertainment than that.