It's pretty much common knowledge that Stephen King adaptations are never as good as their hardbound and printed counterparts, but you kind of have to bite your tongue after saying that when it comes to Misery. Adapted very faithfully from King's tome by director Rob Reiner and writer William Goldman, it's a film that is every bit as strong as the book it is based on.
The film follows an author named Paul Sheldon (James Caan) who, after talking with his agent (Lauren Bacall), leaves the big city and heads into the country where he gets into a car wreck out in the middle of nowhere. Where it not for a hefty country woman named Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), a former nurse who hauls him from the wreckage and brings him back to her home, he surely would have died. When Paul regains consciousness, he finds Annie there, happy to serve his every need. While this might seem like a stroke of luck for Paul, it turns out that Annie is his self proclaimed number one fan, and that she's obsessed with his novels.
At first Paul thinks she's maybe just a little strange, but when Annie coerces him into writing her the novel she wants to read. With little regard to the story Paul wants to tell, Annie's kindness turns twisted and psychotic and he finds himself alone and at the mercy of a very crazy woman in the middle of nowhere...
While Misery benefits from some great writing and some very strong directing, what really makes it work are the performances. James Caan is completely believable and entirely sympathetic in his role, and he plays his character's sense of confusion and trepidation perfectly. We believe him in the part and as such, we can get behind him and hope he's going to be okay. The real star of the show, however, is Kathy Bates, who completely throws herself into the character of Annie Wilkes. She won an Oscar for her work here, and rightly so, as she pulls it all off with such unnerving accuracy that we buy her hook, line and sinker. There are scenes here where it's almost as if someone has flipped a switch inside her that allows her to go from kind caregiver to lunatic fan at the drop of a hat. Had this role been played by anyone else, it's hard to imagine it being nearly as successful. Bates hits all the right notes and literally steals the show from everyone else in the cast.
A large part of what makes Misery one of King's more frightening stories is that it's completely plausible and grounded in reality. Reiner's adaptation doesn't change any of that and it's still very much a story that could happen in real life. This gives Misery considerably more tension and stronger scares than a horror movie that relies on less likely plot devices, be they supernatural or spiritual, as we don't really have to suspend our disbelief here very much at all. For lack of a better cliché to use, let it suffice to say that Misery will keep you on the edge of your seat.
There's also a wicked sense of dark humor running through the storyline that helps make the more horror-centric scenes all the stronger. The humor puts you at ease, allowing the more intense moments to sucker-punch you, giving them more impact and making the movie all the stronger for it. While this is a film that earns its R rating, it's not an exploitative picture in the least. It's violent without being excessive and truly frightening without ever going too far over the top. It's a rare breed of horror film that should appeal even to those who tend to dismiss the genre or aren't comfortable with its expected trappings and one of the best films of the early 1990s.
Misery is presented in a very strong 1.85.1 1080p anamorphic widescreen presentation courtesy of some excellent AVC/MPEG 4 encoding. The image is strong and its grain structure remains intact. Detail is vastly improved over the standard definition release as is color reproduction and the picture generally has a very nice, lifelike and film-like look and texture to it. There are a couple of spots that show some minor noise reduction but thankfully this isn't a constant issue. You'll be able to pick out a lot more detail in close up shots but also appreciate the detail that went into the set design as the background's have even more of a country home authenticity than ever before. All in all, Misery looks very good indeed in its Blu-ray debut.
The English language 48Khz/24-bit DTS-HD 5.1 Surround Sound mix very strong, with standard DTS mixes in French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish and standard Dolby Digital mixes also supplied in Spanish, Hungarian, Turkish and Thai. Subtitles are available in English, English SDH, Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Swedish, Thai and Turkish.
But let's get back to that DTS-HD mix, right? How does it sound? Pretty darn good, actually and you'll notice the improvement over the standard definition release almost immediately as the score just has way more punch and power and clarity to it. Dialogue is always clear and easy to understand and the soundstage makes excellent use of some well timed directional effects to keep you on the edge of your seat. Bass is strong, meaning that a couple of key scenes really have considerably more impact than they've had previously, and while at times things are a bit front heavy, there's really nothing to complain about here - Misery sounds just as good as it looks.
The Blu-ray disc itself is, aside from some menus, completely barebones. Fox has, however, thrown in a copy of the previous special edition standard definition release of the film. That's right, they've basically thrown in the old DVD, so you get all of the previous extras for the movie but nothing new. This is fine except that if you want to watch the movie with either of the two commentary tracks - one from director Rob Reiner and one from screenwriter William Goldman - you have to do it with the standard definition version of the film which, let it suffice to say, is a bit of a letdown. Both tracks are worth listening to though Reiner's is the more interesting of the pair simply because he's got more to say about the film. Goldman's talk is less intense with some noticeable gaps and stretches of completely silence but it too has some good information about the pressures of adapting one of King's best books.
Aside from the commentary tracks, there are also some decent featurettes starting with Misery Loves Company, a half hour long featurette that brings Reiner in front of the camera alongside Katy Bates, James Caan and William Goldman to discuss their various experiences in making the film. It's a pretty interesting piece and worth sitting through to get the input from the two key cast members as much, though not all, of what Reiner and Goldman have to discuss is covered in the commentary tracks. Marc Shaiman's Musical Misery Tour is a decent fifteen minute piece that explores the composer's contributions to the film as we learn about his creative process and are given further appreciation for this work on this picture.
From there we move into more psychological territory beginning with the nine minute Diagnosing Annie Wilkes bit which gives some interesting input into the real world conditions that affect people like the one Kathy Bates plays so well in this film. From there we get some related pieces about the dangers of being stalked - Advice For The Stalked, Profile Of A Stalker, Celebrity Stalkers, Anti-Stalking Laws - all range from two to six minutes long and offer some light, at times almost superficial information about why people stalk other people and what you can do if you find yourself the victim of a stalker. A couple of trailers for the feature round out the extras quite nicely.
A wonderfully crafted and exceptionally tense thriller, Misery holds up well as one of the best cinematic adaptations of King's work. The Blu-ray debut looks and sounds excellent and while it doesn't add any new extras, at least it carries over those from the standard definition release even if they should have been on the Blu-ray disc itself rather than included as a DVD. Regardless, when the dust settles this is a very strong package and it comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.