Many fans of Stephen King regard his source novel as one of the author's best works, so it's fortunate that Rob Reiner's gripping adaptation of Misery (1990) 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 had at least one thing 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. After completing his latest novel at a remote cabin, Paul loses control of his car on the drive home 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...and, as fate would have it, she turns out to be Paul's self-proclaimed "number one fan". Thrilled to have her favorite author as a houseguest, Annie's sweet admiration quickly turns rabid: she disapproves of the career path that Paul is planning, insistent he continue her beloved "Misery" series ad nauseum. It's an obvious quandry for any successful, creative mind at a standstill: should they write for themselves...or the fans? As Paul soon learns, Annie is willing to break plenty of moral codes (and bones) to convince him of the latter.
Wheelchair-bound and nearly 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 escape when Annie drives into town; Paul is a likable 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 presence. She plays the rabid fan with enthusiasm to spare, rounding out a strong lead 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 becoming a director. The film's sparse but memorable score is handled by Marc Shaiman, whose quirky style helps to anchor the tone perfectly. Boasting an irresistibly bleak atmosphere and a taut script by William Goldman, Misery still manages to become more than the sum of its parts...and while the ending has always felt about two minutes too long, it's hard to complain when the other 105 are this entertaining. Shout Factory's brand-new Collector's Edition improves on MGM's earlier Blu-ray and DVD editions with a superb 4K-sourced transfer, two new bonus features, and all of the old ones.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Shout Factory's Blu-ray is sourced from a recent 4K restoration of "original elements", which I assume to mean the camera negative. Either way, MGM's previous Blu-ray looked pretty good in its own right but it's obvious this is an improvement: image detail and textures are stronger and more defined, colors are more evenly saturated (and even better, don't appear to have been "tealed" to death), and overall contrast levels look smoother as well. Misery has always been a deceptively good-looking film: Barry Sonnenfeld's cinematography is fantastic here, with no shortage of stunning winter landscape shots and well-lit interiors that really maintain a solid atmosphere from start to finish. I didn't notice any obvious problems; aside from a few stray dirt marks (they're almost undetectable) and a slight amount of telecine wobble in the opening scenes, Misery looks just about perfect.
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Shout Factory's Blu-ray of Misery, like MGM's 2009 Blu-ray, features two primary DTS-HD 5.1 and 2.0 mixes that do a fine job with the source material. This is obviously a dialogue-driven film, though a few key sequences use the rear channels to create a convincing atmosphere and the effect often works quite well. Dialogue, background effects, and music cues rarely fight for attention, creating a strong balance that maintains the suspense and dark humor nicely. Optional English (SDH) subtitles are included during the main feature. Perhaps the only drawback to Shout's disc applies to non-English speakers: MGM's disc featured nine different dubs, from Spanish to Thai, but they haven't been ported over here.
The interface is presented in Shout's typical no-frills style with smooth, simple navigation and the bare minimum of pre-menu distractions. Separate options are provided for chapter selection, audio/subtitle setup, and bonus features. This one-disc release is packaged in a standard keepcase with reversible cover artwork and a matching slipcover.
MGM's 2009 Blu-ray included the extras from their 2007 Collector's Edition, but only on a separate DVD. Shout Factory has ported over all of those (mostly) great extras for their new Blu-ray and even added some new ones to boot.
Shout's two new supplements include mid-length Interviews with director Rob Reiner (37:09) and special makeup effects artist Greg Nicotero (26:12); these were recorded recently and, as far as I know, exclusive to this release. Topics of interest during the two chats include transitioning from TV acting to film direction, This is Spinal Tap and Stand by Me, the early years of Castle Rock Entertainment, Hitchcock marathons, Kathy Bates' audition, directing James Caan, working with Barry Sonnenfeld, changing the book's ending, starting KNB EFX Group in 1988, trading an axe for a sledgehammer, creating the prosthetics, flying helicopters with John Carpenter, the test screening, and much more. Although Misery isn't a particularly effects-heavy film and thus Nicotero's involvement was somewhat limited, it's a welcome inclusion (especially since, to be fair, many of the lead and supporting actors participated in some of the older extras).
The recycled goodies include two Audio Commentaries (one with director Rob Reiner, the other with screenwriter William Goldman), two Featurettes ("Misery Loves Company" and "Marc Shaiman's Musical Misery Tour"), five so-so "real-life" Mini-Featurettes ("Diagnosing Annie Wilkes", "Advice for the Stalked", "Profile of a Stalker", "Celebrity Stalkers", and "Anti-Stalking Laws"), and two Trailers (the standard one and a special Christmas edition). Though some of these vintage extras are obviously better than others, it's great to finally have everything back in one place again.
Easily one of the finest Stephen King adaptations to date, Rob Reiner's Misery has continued to age gracefully during the past 27 years. James Caan and Kathy Bates carry most of the weight with memorable and committed performances, while the film's claustrophobic atmosphere, offbeat music, and terrific effects work maintain the mood perfectly. It's just a solid production helmed by a director who, at that point, had been on a considerable winning streak and still took a chance by venturing into much darker territory. MGM's previous Collector's Edition DVD and 2009 Blu-ray offered above-average A/V presentations and fairly solid extras, but Shout Factory's new Blu-ray package ups the ante with a 4K-sourced restoration and two valuable new interviews. This isn't quite a perfect release, but it's obviously well-rounded and enjoyable enough to make Misery an absolute no-brainer for fans and newcomers alike. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes, and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.