Despite some big names, 'Misery' is the same old horror


November 30, 1990|By Lou Cedrone

If hostage drama is not your favorite theme, better avoid seeing ''Misery.'' If, however, you enjoy films in which one person is held captive by another, this should do it.

Stephen King did the book on which the film is based. Rob Reiner directed, and William Goldman (''Butch Cassidy'') did the script. That gives the new horror film credentials, but when all is said and done, it's the same old horror business. Reiner does avoid most of the cliches of the genre, but some of them are in there, and the movie has more than its share of inconsistencies.

The performers, however, are superb. James Caan plays the victim, and Kathy Bates is the victimizer. He plays an author who is trying to break from the genre that has brought him wealth and fame. She is the crazy woman who pulls him out of his car when it goes off the road in a snowstorm.

She recognizes him. She has read most of his ''Misery'' books. She has yet to read the latest, and when she does, the author is in real trouble. Annie Wilkes (Bates) doesn't like the fact that Paul Sheldon (Caan) has sent Misery to her grave. She wants Misery to return, and she is going to see that Sheldon writes another book, one that brings Misery back to life.

It should occur to Sheldon, as quickly as it does to the audience, that it might be best to humor this madwoman and tell her, early on, that he has always intended to bring Misery back to life. The script, however, doesn't have it that way, so we watch and wait as Sheldon, his legs mending very slowly, tries to plan his escape.

Reiner and Goldman took most of the gore out of the story, but there is mayhem enough. In the book, the author loses a foot and a thumb to his keeper. In the film, he is left intact, for which we thank both Reiner and Goldman. More would have been unbearable.

As is, the film is unbearable enough, save for the last 10 minutes. They lift you off your seat. You'll find yourself cheering for this woman's death, more than you did for the death of the woman in ''Fatal Attraction.''

Caan is in bed during much of the film. Later, he gets about in a wheelchair. As an author who knows he had better glide lightly, he does some of his best work.

Bates is Nurse Ratched of the snows. Attractive in a very plain way, she is initially all sugar. Here and there, however, the sugar turns to salt, and when the woman gives way to these bursts, Bates is exceptional. She is the total picture of the sweet-talker who can turn into a monster in a matter of seconds.

Goldman has added two characters the book did not have, a sheriff and his wife. Played by Richard Farnsworth and Frances Sternhagen, they are good company, but we know exactly what roles they will play in this film. We haven't seen Martin Balsam climb those stairs in ''Psycho'' time after time for nothing.

Lauren Bacall is literary agent to Sheldon. It's nice to see her back on the big screen.

''Misery'' brings ''The Collector'' to mind. In ''The Collector,'' a young man kidnapped a pretty young woman and held her captive, as he might a butterfly. It was agony sitting through that one. It isn't much more pleasant sitting through this one.

The film, which also uses a -- or two of slasher music, opens here today. Reiner uses Liberace recordings to amusing effect. He also uses ''I'll Be Seeing You,'' a song he says he loves but doesn't treat with too much respect in the film.

Fortunately, the director does not use the pigeons and cats that are part of the horror movies. He does, however, use a horror cliche at the end of the film, which, despite the familiarity, has you shouting at the screen.

King may have been trying to say something in the novel. He may have been trying to say that he'd like to break away from the horror genre. We wish him Godspeed.


** An author, rescued when his car goes off the road, finds himself prisoner of a strange young woman.

CAST: James Caan, Kathy Bates, Richard Farnsworth, Frances Sternhagen, Lauren Bacall

DIRECTOR: Rob Reiner

RATING: R (violence, language)

RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes

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