It's obviously horror season on DVD, as this is the third Stephen King title I've reviewed in just over a week---and fittingly enough, the best has been saved for last. Many fans of the celebrated author regard Misery as one of King's most engaging novels, so it's no surprise that Rob Reiner's gripping adaptation does it visceral justice. The director certainly didn't seem like the obvious candidate on paper, having cut his teeth on films like This Is Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride several years earlier, but it was Reiner's Stand By Me (adapted from a King short story) that first caught the author's eye in 1986. As he would soon learn, Reiner certainly had plenty in common with the protagonist of Misery: though never terrorized by a sledgehammer-wielding psychopath, he was indeed a creative mind who longed to branch out in new directions.
The protagonist in question, Paul Sheldon (played by James Caan), maintains one of King's favorite themes: he's a writer in peril. Our story opens on a low-key but celebratory note; Paul has just completed his latest novel, relaxing with a hard-earned cigarette and a bottle of Dom Perignon. He's been staying at a remote cabin nestled in a wintry landscape, a long-standing tradition when he's ready to finish a book. Packing his untitled story carefully inside his trusty leather bag, Paul begins the journey home in his 1965 Ford Mustang just as a blizzard approaches. Overtaken by slippery curves and low visibility, his car swerves off the road and flips over an embankment. Injured and unable to move, a stranger comes to Paul's rescue: Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), a local nurse who tends to his injuries at her nearby home.
As fate would have it, Annie turns out to be Paul's self-proclaimed "number one fan"---and she's got an extensive collection of "Misery" novels (Paul's cash cow during the bulk of his writing career) to prove it. Thrilled to have such a revered wordsmith in her humble abode, Annie's seemingly sincere admiration of the author quickly turns rabid. She disapproves of the career path that Paul is planning, insistent that he continue her beloved "Misery" ad nauseum. It's a simple metaphor for any successful, creative mind at a career roadblock: should they write for themselves...or for the fans? As Paul soon finds out, the mentally unhinged Annie is willing to break plenty of moral codes---and bones---to convince him.
Wheelchair-bound and almost completely helpless, Caan portrays Paul Sheldon with genuine smugness and frustration. We're stuck in the house with him during the bulk of Misery, hoping he'll manage to escape when Annie drives into town. Paul is a likeable enough protagonist, whose sharp wit and clever planning elevate him above your average dumb-as-a-post horror victims. Misery is made all the more potent and affecting by Bates' performance as Annie, who manages to create a truly unpredictable, quirky (and dare I say sympathetic?) villain with a convincing physical and mental presence. She plays the rabid Sheldon fanatic with enthusiasm to spare, rounding out a strong debut performance that netted her a Best Actress Oscar right out of the gate.
Supporting roles are handled capably by Frances Sternhagen, Lauren Bacall and the late, great Richard Farnsworth. The film's haunting visuals are helmed by Barry Sonnenfeld, in what would be his last work as a DP before stepping behind the camera. The film's sparse but memorable score is handled by Marc Shaiman, whose quirky style helps to set the off-balance tone perfectly. Boasting an irresistibly bleak atmosphere and a taut script by the incomparable William Goldman, Misery still manages to become more than the sum of its parts. Though the film's ending has always seemed about two minutes too long, it's hard to complain when the other 105 are this entertaining.
Until now, this critically and commercially successful film has never received the proper treatment on DVD. Originally issued twice in barebones, non-anamorphic fashion, MGM has finally stepped up to the plate with a fully-loaded Collector's Edition. Featuring a remastered technical presentation and a host of new bonus features, Misery defies its age and still manages to surprise, frighten...and yes, even squeeze in a few laughs along the way. Let's take a cock-a-doodie look, shall we?
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for 16x9 displays (finally!), Misery looks excellent from start to finish. The film's natural color palette is bold and bright, from the vivid reds of the opening titles to the chilly nighttime sequences. Image detail and black levels are solid, while no major digital problems were spotted along the way. Overall, fans won't find much to complain about.
The audio is presented in English Dolby Digital 5.1 (with optional French and Spanish 2.0 Surround dubs) and also sounds terrific. This is obviously a dialogue-driven film, though a few key sequences use the rear channels to create a convincing atmosphere. Dialogue, sound effects and music cues rarely fight for attention, creating a strong balance that maintains the suspense and dark humor nicely. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are included during the main feature, though most of the extras feature Closed Caption support.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the animated menu designs are basic and easy to navigate. The 107-minute main feature has been divided into 28 chapters, while no obvious layer change was detected during playback. This one-disc release is housed in a standard black keepcase; also included are a book-themed slipcover and a foldout chapter insert.
Since the original release skimped on the extras, it's good to see a solid effort in this department. The main attraction is a pair of feature-length Audio Commentaries; one featuring director Rob Reiner, and the other with screenwriter William Goldman. Reiner's track is a casual and entertaining session, as the director does a fine job detailing his experiences working with the cast and crew. It's obvious that Misery represented a real turning point in Reiner's career, and one that he looks back on with fond memories. A few lapses into silence slow things down along the way, but the bulk of what's here is certainly worth listening to.
Goldman's track, on the other hand, is much more sporadic. Though his delivery is often enthusiastic and passionate, he admits having only seen the completed film once before this newly-recorded commentary...and it shows, more often than not. A few interesting anecdotes spice things up along the way, but there are far too many lapses into silence to consider this a satisfactory solo track. Fans of the screenwriting process may enjoy Goldman's comments, but Reiner's track is easily the more engaging of the two. Grouping both participants together might have tightened things up a bit.
Next up are a pair of retrospective Featurettes, including "Misery Loves Company" (29:58, below left) and "Marc Shaiman's Musical Misery Tour" (14:28). The first is an excellent and concise account of the film's production, featuring comments from Reiner, Goldman, Kathy Bates, James Caan and more. It's obvious that these participants enjoyed their time with each other, though it digs a bit deeper than your average back-patting session. A few snippets of information from the audio commentaries are repeated, but most of the stories are worth hearing more than once. The second featurette focuses on composer Marc Shaiman, whose quirky personality and delivery makes for an interesting chat. Among other topics, he speaks about his unusual (and sometimes surprisingly straightforward) methods of pairing music with visuals---and though this is more clip-heavy than most, it's a worthwhile inclusion that fans should enjoy.
Also here are five Mini-Featurettes that aren't quite as engaging, though they're worth browsing through once. These self-explanatory bits include "Diagnosing Annie Wilkes" (8:47), "Advice for the Stalked" (4:58, above left), "Profile of a Stalker" (6:17), "Celebrity Stalkers" (5:08) and "Anti-Stalking Laws" (2:23). Featuring comments from forensic psychologist Reid Meloy, John C. Lane of the Omega Threat Management Group and prosecutor Rhonda Saunders, these pieces attempt to dissect the real-life psychology behind Misery, pairing talking head interviews with Unsolved Mysteries-style re-enactments. The information is accurate and occasionally interesting, but these featurettes feel a bit "shoe-horned in" on the whole. It's certainly not as convincing as Criterion's steely treatment of The Silence of the Lambs, though at least an effort was made.
Closing things out is a pair of Trailers for Misery, including the original version (2:20) and a special "Season's Greetings" trailer that aired during the 1990 holiday season (2:25). Though nearly all of the bonus features include Closed Captioning support, only the first trailer is anamorphically enhanced. It's not the most visually polished set of extras in recent memory (and a few deleted scenes would've been nice), but the bulk of what's here fits in nicely.
Easily one of the finest Stephen King adaptations to date, Rob Reiner's Misery has aged quite gracefully during the past two decades. James Caan and Kathy Bates carry most of the weight with memorable performances, while the film's claustrophobic atmosphere sets the mood perfectly. MGM's long-awaited Collector's Edition should please fans overall, combining a rock-solid technical presentation with a host of retrospective bonus features. Those new to Misery should consider this a solid blind buy, while owners of previous editions will want to hunt down this affordable and welcome upgrade. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.