This article is part of our One Perfect Archive project, a series of deep dives that explore the filmmaking craft behind some of our favorite shots. In this entry, we discuss how Misery maximizes horror from a modest setting.
Stephen King’s oeuvre is widely comprised of horror stories that find grim potential in the corners of everyday human experience, and the film versions of his literary works bring these nightmares to life with a special fervor. An essential piece of that filmography is the 1990 adaptation of Misery, a story that experiments with boundaries and constraints, both physical and mental.
The Rob Reiner-helmed picture follows famous novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan), who gets into a terrible car accident and wakes up in the home of a seemingly friendly woman, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates). Annie tells Paul that she’s his number one fan and will be glad to nurse him back to health — but as she begins to breach personal space and confines her patient to his bed, it’s clear that the walls are closing in on Paul.
The film’s claustrophobia functions on two parallel levels: the literal and the analogous. At first, Paul is confined to his bed because he simply can’t move; he has a set of broken legs from the crash, a bad shoulder, and a beat up face. His bed-ridden state soon leaves him at the mercy of Annie, who reveals herself to be a crazed psychopath obsessed with Paul and his romance novels. Where he was once imprisoned by his broken body, Paul is now imprisoned by the woman who took him in; after reading the final installment in his most famous series, Misery, in which the titular character is killed off, Annie decides that she won’t let him leave until he rewrites it to her liking. Here, feelings of confinement manifest in a literal sense, as the protagonist is detained by his captor, and indeed, by the camera at some points.
When we first meet Annie, Paul has just come to after the car wreck. The camera gazes from Paul’s perspective, shifting in and out of focus, panning up to the ceiling, and glancing at a wall, before turning its attention to Annie, who looms over in such a way that feels all too familiar: it recreates the discomfort of having another person encroaching. The horrors that Paul suffers under Annie’s watchful eye are amplified by an enduring sense of escapelessness, made uniquely frightening by the camera’s proximity to her angry face, intruding hands, and fast-approaching footsteps. Misery traces its anxiety from the sensation of being in an enclosed space with no realistic escape route — it captures a feeling of pure paralysis that transfers from its victim to the viewer.
Annie and Paul are treated inversely by the film in terms of the way they each take up space. She is the one who infringes, who crosses preconceived limits, who enters and exits the room at her own desire. Even when the door of the bedroom is open, she often dwells within the entrance, acting as a makeshift barrier. When Annie is mad, she approaches the camera swiftly, her face filling up the frame and pushing against its four borders, threatening to shatter them; she’s the monster. All of this is in contrast with Paul’s helplessness, which endangers him. When the camera rests on his face, it feels as though he’s at risk of being crushed by the frame — not the other way around.
The film’s claustrophobia is analogous, too, functioning as a sort of proxy for Paul’s fame. His car accident occurs as he’s driving back from a cabin, where he’s just finished writing a new novel that is supposed to mark a new chapter in his career after the Misery series: “I haven’t been a writer since I got into the Misery business,” he tells his agent disdainfully, before the crash. Paul’s most well-known works kept him boxed in, unable to pursue other stories for many years. Once he’s in Annie’s presence, his experience as a celebrity in the presence of an obsessive fan is rather like looking at a one-sided mirror: people often know more about him before he knows a single thing about them. Because he doesn’t know Annie, her first outburst comes as a shock, indicating that he’ll have to tiptoe around an invisible line for his own safety. This perversion of privacy and strangership feels confining in its own way, and it’s the primary reason that Paul is being subject to Annie’s torture.
Annie is almost always nearby, and she doesn’t just cross a physical threshold. Part of her villainy lies in her dazed, creepy endearments, further breaching abstract emotional boundaries, leaving Paul trapped not just by the room’s four walls but by her obsessive declarations of love: “When you first came here, I only loved the writer part of Paul Sheldon. Now I know I love the rest of him, too.” There’s already something deeply uncomfortable of being on the receiving side of unrequited love, but when it’s offered by a lunatic who wants to kill you, that feeling quickly devolves into one of terror. In Misery, Paul’s fight for survival can only be realized if he busts out from these spaces of imprisonment.