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MGM Studios DVD presents
"And don't even think about anybody coming for you. Not the doctors, not the agent, not your family, because I never called them. Nobody knows you're here. And you better hope that nothing happens to me because if I die, you die."
DVD ReviewIn doing a little background research prior to writing this review, I discovered that the Internet Movie Database lists fifty-one films (either theatrical or made-for-TV) that are based on or inspired by Stephen King novels, novellas, or short stories. If this isn't a record among contemporary authors, it's got to be pretty close. Just among the theatrical releases, these King-adaptations run the gamut from very good (The Shawshank Redemption, The Shining) to not so good (Maximum Overdrive, The Running Man). The list of directors that have taken a stab at a King screen adaptation is also impressive (Stanley Kubrick, John Carpenter, Brian De Palma, David Cronenberg, Tobe Hooper, et. al.) Director Rob Reiner, the man who brought us This Is Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride, has himself twice brought King works to the screen. His first was 1986's coming-of-age drama Stand By Me, inspired by King's novella The Body. His second, adapted from a 1987 King novel of the same name, is 1990's Misery.
Like The Shining, Misery concerns itself with a writer trapped by sinister forces and rough Colorado winter weather. The similarities end there, however. Paul Sheldon is a bestselling author of historical romance novels. His bread and butter, so to speak, is a damsel named Misery Chastain, whose romantic adventures he has chronicled in nine novels, eight already published and one about to be. Sheldon is tired of writing about Misery and tired of writing romance novels in general. In an early flashback scene, we learn that the financial allure of writing these novels no longer motivates him and that feels that he has been prostituting his literary talents. Therefore, in this most recent Misery novel, Misery's Child, she dies at the end of complications arising from childbirth. With Misery dead and buried, he can focus on the serious novels he has always wanted to write.
This task is what has brought Paul to Colorado. Paul is a superstitious man when it comes to writing. He has written every single one of his novels at the same Colorado mountain resort and has delivered every novel to his publisher in the same battered leather portfolio. As we join Paul, he has just finished his first serious novel, a gritty drama about boys growing up in an inner-city neighborhood. He places his new manuscript in his beloved portfolio, hops in his car, and proceeds to drive back to New York. Unfortunately, a vicious snow storm springs up as he heads down the mountain; he loses control of his vehicle and crashes his car into a steep ravine.
Paul wakes up in a bed, his arm in a sling, his legs broken and bandaged—but he is not in a hospital. He is in the home of a nurse, Annie Wilkes, who tells him that she will take him to a hospital once the roads are open and the telephones work again. Oh, by the way, she also happens to be his "number one fan." Paul is at first relieved. Annie has certainly saved him from what would have undoubtedly been a painful death of exposure. However, his relief soon turns to discomfort and eventual terror as he realizes that Annie is not a sweet guardian angel, but a deranged psychopath who plans on imprisoning him and forcing him to write a new Misery Chastain novel, one that brings the character she so identifies with back to life.
Kathy Bates had had a significant career prior to this film, but most of her roles were bit parts in made-for-TV and theatrical films, as well as a stint on a soap opera. Her memorable performance as the deranged Annie Wilkes, it is fair to say, is the role that made her the star she is today. For this performance she won both a 1991 Oscar and Golden Globe awards for Best Actress. Since then her career has skyrocketed, with memorable roles in the critically-acclaimed Fried Green Tomatoes, Primary Colors, and Titanic. Additionally, she has acted in the title role of another Stephen King film adaptation, 1995's Dolores Claiborne. The other primary role in Misery, that of author Paul Sheldon, is filled by James Caan. His performance is not as memorable as Bates', but he does some very good physical acting while playing a man struggling to move about while still at the mercy of a crippled, slowly healing body. In some ways, I felt he was actually more convincing than Bates. Misery features only a small smattering of additional characters. The local sheriff, Buster, and his wife/deputy, Virginia, are played by Hollywood-veterans Richard Farnsworth and Frances Sternhagen. The two have some great lines together, but overall their performances are lackluster and take a backseat to the escalating tension between Sheldon and Wilkes. Lauren Bacall, in a small but competent performance, plays the New York literary agent who first reports Sheldon missing. In uncredited roles, the late J.T. Walsh plays a state trooper, and Rob Reiner sneaks in an easy-to-miss cameo as a helicopter pilot.
Despite my being a relatively faithful Stephen King reader over the years and the level of attention this film received upon its release, I had never seen this film until now. It is a wonderfully frightening premise. A man is incapacitated with two broken legs and a dislocated shoulder, trapped in the remote mountain home of a madwoman. One must wonder if, perhaps, some particularly sinister fan letters gave King the inspiration for this novel. He did, in fact, live in Colorado himself for a time. Despite the chilling motif and the effective performances by both Bates and Caan, I only found Misery to be "good," rather than "great." The screenplay by William Goldman (who wrote both the novel and the screenplay for Reiner's The Princess Bride) is competent and says the right things in the right places, but the overall presentation is too mechanical, too uninspired. Also, despite all the attention that Bates garnered for her performance (and it surely is a memorable one), I found her just a tad bit unconvincing as Wilkes. Despite these criticisms, however, Misery is a pretty effective thriller and sure to keep you on the edge of your seat for most of its gut-wrenching second half.
Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: Let's get the bad news out of the way—Misery's image transfer is not anamorphic. I must admit I am rather disappointed. MGM, with its recent anamorphic re-releases of Platoon and Fargo, has shown a willingness to issue 16x9 enhanced widescreen versions of some popular catalog titles, but apparently not in this case.
Now, on to the good news; Misery's letterbox widescreen image (presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1) is very impressive for a ten-year-old film. The picture is generally very crisp, black levels are sound, and colors are as vivid as the film's atmosphere intends them to be. Only the faintest graininess mars this transfer, and you'll have to peer very hard to notice it.
Misery is a two-sided disc and a "pan and scan" transfer is offered on the opposite side. Video quality for this transfer is virtually identical to the widescreen transfer.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: Presented in Dolby 2.0 Surround, the audio is actually quite good. Most of the action takes place indoors, so there is little dynamic activity in much of the film. Dialogue is crisp and clean. However, for atmospheric outdoor shots, a thunderstorm scene, a helicopter scene, and a crowded restaurant scene, the surround channel is used to great effect. Overall, the mix is much more active and rich than I would have expected it to be.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 25 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in Spanish, French, and English (CC) with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 TV Spots/Teasers
Layers Switch: n/a
Extras Grade: D
Final CommentsWhile not likely to ever make the AFI list of "Top 100" thrillers, Misery is a tension-filled story of a man who meets and falls prey to the ultimate fan from hell. The film is probably worth a look for Kathy Bates' memorable performance alone.
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