With Rob Reiner’s thriller celebrating its 30th anniversary, George Nash looks at the alarming relevance of Misery in the modern era…
Movies, and perhaps most patently horror movies, are like mirrors. For well over a century, in the familiar setting of the living room or dark sanctuary of the multiplex, in the perceived safety of escapism, the moving picture has reflected the successes, sins and fears of society right back at us. The horror genre in particular, both a product of, and reaction to the trials and tribulations of the day, does so more brazenly than most, taking forms that sway unashamedly between barrages of blood, brooding, slow-burning atmospheres, and drain-dwelling killer clowns with red balloons.
What the very best ones share, however, is a feeling of agelessness. These are films that are frightening in ways that transcends both time and place, often manifesting terrifying new meanings over the years while retaining an alarming relevance.
It is, for instance, watching Ben, the African American hero from George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, being gunned down in the film’s final frames by white authorities in a time of Black Lives Matter protests. It’s watching Amity Island’s callous Mayor Vaughn refusing to shut the beaches in Jaws during a global pandemic. And, three decades on, it’s watching Annie Wilkes, the obsessive superfan in the 1990 Rob Reiner adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Misery, holding renowned novelist Paul Sheldon captive in her home when the social media age has completely redefined the relationship between a celebrity and their fan base.
“I’m your number one fan,” utters Wilkes (an Oscar-winning performance from then-unknown actress Kathy Bates) in what has become the film’s enduring, unofficial tagline. Fitting then, that it would be a moment of unbridled fandom that would begin the cinematic journey of King’s text.
“[King] didn’t want to option it to anybody, unless he felt it was in good hands,” said Reiner of the author’s reluctance to offer up the movie rights for his book on the Collector’s Edition Blu-ray, released in 2017. That hardly seems surprising: Misery was, and arguably remains, its author’s most personal work. In its examination of entrapment, both physical and figurative, the story of a famous writer (played by James Caan), professionally pigeonholed by a series of popular Harlequin-esque romance novels, being held captive by Bates’ obsessive fan draws parallels with King’s own struggles with drug addiction and his attempts to shake the confinement of his success in horror fiction.
Yet, so impressed by what Reiner had done with Stand By Me – an adaptation of his 1982 novella, The Body – King was happy to grant the rights to Castle Rock Entertainment (the production company whose name, incidentally, was inspired by the fictional Maine town featured in several of King’s stories) on the condition that Reiner would either produce or direct.
For King, at least, the decision proved fruitful: the author has listed Misery among his all-time favourite film adaptations. In 1990, however, it was something of an outlier during a particularly prosperous period for Hollywood movies about (mainly female) stalkers. Fatal Attraction, released in 1987, had become a huge hit, while potboilers like Poison Ivy and The Crush (both arriving in the early 90s) were lurking just around the corner. Sandwiched in between was Reiner’s film, one that, despite the indubitable romantic undertones in Wilkes’s obsession with Sheldon, eschews the underlying erotica of its contemporaries in favour of something more slippery, more darkly humorous, and something altogether more menacing.
But Misery, as much as it operates as a nasty, horror-tinged cautionary tale about fandom, is at its most effective as a shrewd examination of the disparity between perception and reality. Above all else, it’s most potent as a parable about fans and their idols: a relationship that exists not with a real person, but with the public persona of a person.
“When you first came here, I only loved the writer part of Paul Sheldon,” Wilkes says, “Now I know I love the rest of him too.” Given the path the film ultimately takes, it’s a line that is as ironic as it is telling. Entirely consumed by the image of who she wants him to be, Wilkes flies off the proverbial handle when Paul fails to meet her expectations, and subsequently takes a very literal sledgehammer to the real Sheldon she has been exposed to.
But Wilkes is more nuanced than the film’s infamous ‘hobbling’ scene might suggest. Beneath a violent, unpredictable exterior, she is a character of intriguing contradiction. She symbolises everything from giddy adoration to unhealthy fixation, and the fine line that separates them. She is both caricature and complex. Both extreme and alarmingly ordinary. She is both frightening and pitiful. Both villain and victim. In something of an anomaly in mainstream horror, she is both other and us.
And, 30 years later, she has become a rather striking embodiment of today’s online world. Despite predating the social media era by the best part of two decades, Wilkes is the ultimate ‘stan’: an early, albeit exaggerated iteration of contemporary fan culture, and viewers might well see a little bit of themselves in her unabashed excitement at getting up close and personal with her hero and her encyclopaedic knowledge of even his most trivial idiosyncrasies. In 2020, however, it comes not as the result of a car crash in the snow-covered hills of rural Colorado, but at the simple touch of a button.
To that end, watching Reiner’s film today, the growing claustrophobia of Sheldon’s predicament begins to take on an added metaphorical layer. Just as the bed-bound author is at the mercy of Wilkes—reduced to something of a static figure, much like her prized porcelain animals, and confined within the four walls of her remote cabin—the space between celebrity and fan in contemporary society has never been smaller. As the distance erodes with increasing velocity in an age of social media, the adoring masses now have greater, near-constant access to their idols. Every status, every uploaded photo, and every 280-character message becomes an invitation for fans to step that little bit further into a celebrity’s personal life. And it can all be done from the comfort of home.
But, as it does in the film, things can quickly turn ugly. Consider, for example, the online backlash whenever an actor, popstar or influencer starts to get political, or, more specifically, the petition started by fans to remove Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi from the Star Wars canon completely—a movement that draws eerie similarities to the actions of Wilkes upon learning the fate of Misery Chastain, the titular character of Paul’s literary franchise.
In that sense, the film’s opening frame, a blank screen accompanied by the sound of loud typing, becomes all the more salient. When Sheldon naively remarks to Wilkes early on “You were following me,” in a time of Twitter and Instagram, it hits a little differently. Were it made now, Misery might require nothing more. There’d be no need for a car accident or a torched manuscript; no need for a hostage situation or a pair of obliterated tibia. The deadly concoction of Misery Chastain’s death and a social media account would be scary enough.
Perhaps even Annie Wilkes and her cabin in the woods would be surplus to requirements. In 2020, it seems, your number one fan is never that far away. Just a click away, in fact.