The Joy of Misery

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On Friday night I saw Misery on the big screen. What a treat!

It was only a couple of weeks ago that I was telling you about seeing The Big Lebowski at the cinema. Well, the good folks out at The Roxy (in Miramar) have done it again. In fact, they’re always doing it – putting on cult titles, creating events, thinking about ways to entice people away from their devices and to put bums on seats in front of the big screen – no texting or social media updates during the film, just the immersion in a story.

Misery was part of their mini-film festival, A Roxy Midwinter Wonderland.

I didn’t make it to anything else in their line-up but I bought my tickets to Misery as soon as I heard about it.

What a movie.

And both a thrill and a joy to see it on the big screen.

I first saw Misery when it came out on VHS tape. I remember it vividly. If it wasn’t the first Stephen King adaptation I saw, it was the first to have real impact. I was in Gisborne, summer holidays. A small bunch of us staying at a friend’s house, watching Return of the Living Dead and whatever else we could find – horror films, action films, martial arts, a few classic music concerts too. We’d swim, play golf, muck around on the guitars, do our best on the giant snooker table, buy cassette tapes (Deep Purple, Jeff Beck) and generally fill the days with some sense of spirit and some sort of activity. But it was also just a way of passing time before the slumber party thrill-ride of watching four or five films through the night.

And Misery was a white-knuckler for us.

Around this time I started reading Stephen King too. Pet Sematary, It, Carrie…I always remember the first three and the order in which they arrived – ticking off the movie versions of each too. Other classics from there, over the next decade. And then no more. For many years.

In fact I’ve just got back into Stephen King this year – mostly listening to podcasts, revisiting the movies, catching up on a few adaptations I hadn’t seen, and wanting to read his books again as much as actually reading them.

Last week I finally read the novel Misery.

I’d long been told it was one of his best, and though I never doubted that I guess I just felt I knew the movie well – and that it had done a great job. And then King was out of vogue for me, for the longest time.

Deciding to read Misery, in the build up to watching it again, was perfect. It’s such a great story. So well told. And, yes, there’s a little bit extra in there – a few things that don’t quite translate – the way it is with any book that is moved to the screen. In the book we get to read bits of the novel Paul Sheldon is forced to write. In the book the famous ‘hobbling’ scene plays out with similar set-up and dialogue but is even more brutal.

But then, watching the film again – so soon after reading its source material – I really was struck with what a good job they did. World built, explored, action covered, tension ratcheted. It is a small film. Like a two-hander theatre piece for the most part, really only a half-dozen characters ever make it on to the screen. But is perfect in its way.

And what a dream-team of cast and crew.

Stephen King’s source material is turned to screenplay by William Goldman (arguably during his golden run). The director is Rob Reiner – he may not be your first pick for greatest director of the 80s and 90s but it’s hard to see where he put a foot wrong as he surveyed many genres (This is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, then Misery, and following that up with A Few Good Men). Reiner was right at his peak and he’d proved he could do a great job of adapting King – taking the novella The Body and turning it into Stand By Me.

Director of Photography Barry Sonnenfeld is now known as a director (Get Shorty, Men in Black) but  as a cinematographer he had worked on early Coen Brothers classics Blood Simple and Raising Arizona and is perhaps best revered for his work on their masterpiece Miller’s Crossing, which arrived the same year as his stunning efforts capturing Misery’s claustrophobia and isolation.

Then you have Hollywood legend James Caan who could play any type of character in any kind of film across the 1970s – but often a hero. And the star-making turn from Kathy Bates, who had done character work and theatre roles – but really broke through with her turn as Annie Wilkes, winning both the Golden Globe and Oscar.

In support you have Richard Farnsworth (I love him!) and Lauren Bacall cameos as Paul Sheldon’s agent. There’s even a blink and you’ll miss it uncredited cameo from J.T. Walsh, in one of the only other on-screen roles.

Dream team.

On Friday night – watching Misery, and it must be half a dozen times I’ve seen this film, at least – I really appreciated the comedic timing of Frances Sternhagen, another great character actor. She wins every small scene she is in.

The experience of seeing Misery on the big screen was an utter joy. You know the story, you know what’s going to happen. And yet there is still tension. Marc Shapiro’s score subtly builds, Reiner makes these interesting decisions to give you close-ups on a section of the wheelchair, before cutting away to a car making its way through the snow. Your heart races in the hope that Paul will get back into bed and lock the door before Annie returns with the reams of typewriter paper. Yes, yes, you’ve seen it before, you know the answer – but in that moment of immersion you aren’t ever quite sure.

This is the power of great filmmaking and of wonderful story telling.

Reading the book I was powering through it – King’s a compelling writer, I knew the central action from the times I’d seen the film – and yet I was still held in that little, terrifying world. It’s such a page-turner.

So, this is really just me saying well done to all involved at the Roxy for a wise selection.

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But also, it was a big night in our house. Because the youngest horror fan in our family finally got to see a horror film on the big screen. And though he had previously seen Misery he too basked in the revelation of jump-scares in a movie theatre, of collective gasps and nervous but knowing laughter.

Misery loves company eh.

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