‘Misery’ Would Be a Masterpiece in Any Decade [We Love ’90s Horror]

In the years since this column’s debut, ’90s horror movies have actually found a sizable and heartwarming amount of rediscovery and reappreciation. Physical media has resurrected and restored numerous films to the point where even derided efforts like my beloved I Still Know What You Did Last Summer can get a celebratory 4K upgrade. With this new outlook, horror culture is starting to better redefine the historical landscape of the decade. The conversation is no longer enveloped by the shadow of Ghostface.

But, Misery offers a unique issue when it comes to embracing a movie. An issue made more complex and wonderful by Misery being one of the greatest popular stories to occur in our lifetimes.

A bold claim? Of course, but the evidence is on my side. The novel by Stephen King is often cited among his top standalone achievements in fiction. I had never read the novel and felt that was necessary preparation for this column. Its reputation is beyond earned. The meat of King’s story – injured writer held captive by their biggest fan – hasn’t lost a shred of potency or terror. Misery is in King’s S-tier without question.

That only makes Misery the film all the more incredible. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman add to or change a hefty amount of the source material, inventing whole new characters and plotting. Normally, this would cause concern for an adaptation. However, they don’t misunderstand or alter the dark heart of King’s nightmare. Clever writing and impeccable casting (a true “no small parts” movie where I could spend the whole column praising every cast member) help make everything click into place. Misery is a benchmark example when it comes to understanding how to tell the same story in two different mediums.

Since casting has already come up, Misery’s definitive stamp on pop culture history must be Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes. Given gold from the novel and screenplay to spin into platinum, Bates crafts a villain unmatched in her fearsome domination over our hero, Paul Sheldon (James Caan). Even then, Bates never loses control of the enormous emotional spectrum she needs to make Annie succeed as a human being and not a cartoon. If I must make one of my controversial statements: Anthony Hopkins’ delicious Hannibal Lecter is often understandably heralded as the horror performance of the ‘90s, but Bates deserves that honor instead.

There is so much to champion about Misery that I’d feel remiss if I didn’t fire off a few highlights before getting to The Point. As stated, the limited cast is aces. Caan brings his one-of-a-kind charisma and pathos to Sheldon’s ordeal, Lauren Bacall nails every second of her special appearance as Paul’s agent, and the pairing of Richard Farnsworth and Frances Sternhagen as a married sheriff and deputy is so perfect that I’d watch a whole movie just about them. From the wintery cinematography of Barry Sonnenfeld to the clockwork editing of Robert Leighton, this is a production in perfect harmony with all its moving parts.

Now, The Point. It’s not in debate whether Misery is respected. Rather, there are parts of its DNA that seem to have made it a difficult movie to adopt as a masterwork of the decade. For one, it doesn’t feel like it belongs in its decade. Not solely because it was released in 1990 – a year that this column has proven is a high watermark for horror – but because it has a timeless aura. You can certainly date the movie but the execution and intention of the story does strive for universal understanding regardless of era. That timeless quality ensures the film’s longevity, but it also seems to have stopped it from leading horror’s greatest hits in the ‘90s because it doesn’t feel “‘90s.”

Though, the real core difficulty and power of Misery is that it is a story that rejects fandom as identity and feeling ownership over someone’s creative work. So, an Annie Wilkes Funko Pop! or a T-shirt with a Paul Sheldon book cover design is always going to carry some unavoidable dissonance. You can say similar things about horror merchandise mainstays like Freddy Krueger or Pennywise, but regardless of their moral positions as mascots, they aren’t actively engaging with criticizing fan culture. Annie Wilkes will always confront the audience’s relationship with consumer art and its artists, and that’s likely why she’s not able to become a legitimized brand for horror.

Which is kind of awesome. We all love our favorite horror icons, but Misery shouldn’t really be a part of that machine by design. It’s operating on a singular and pointed nature that defies submitting to total commercialization. Misery is a legitimate masterpiece that would stand out in any decade, but it needs to be seen right up there with Candyman as a contender for the best horror movie of the ‘90s.

The ‘90s often get a bad rap with horror fans. After the numerous successful slashers and creature effects films of the ’80s, the ‘90s offered a different variety of horror fare. Though there were plenty of hits, hidden gems, and misunderstood classics, the ‘90s usually don’t get the kind of love that other decades get when it comes to horror. It’s time to change that.

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