After crashing his car in a snowstorm, bestselling author James Caan (Paul) finds himself at the mercy of fanatical psychopath Kathy Bates (Annie).
She's a country bumpkin and former nurse who lives a solitary existence in a snow-laden farmhouse. She's also his number one fan.
It's no coincidence that Annie was around to pry Paul's broken body out of the wreck of his car. She'd been stalking him in the days leading up to the accident and is honoured that a man of his stature should recover in her home. His convalescence coincides with the release of his latest novel, Misery's Child; the final book in a series where the lead character, Misery, is killed off.
Based on a nightmare Stephen King had which inspired a bestseller, Misery relies on a series of coincidences to develop the relationship between man and monster. Annie tells Paul that the storm's cut out the phones and closed the roads, which he initially accepts. She does, however, manage to obtain a copy of his latest novel and sets about ravenously reading. By now her hot-tempered nature and tenuous grip on reality have been established, and we wait anxiously for her to discover Misery's death, which of course leads to a violent, irrational confrontation.
There are few uglier incarnations of female screen villainy than Annie Wilkes. With her round, fleshy face, demure, pinned-back hair and homely wardrobe, she's the apex of matriarchal tyranny. Her internal life is pure fantasy which, along with her Christian devoutness, allows her to withstand the humdrum alienation of rural life. When she's calm she is soft, womanly, even likable in a pathetic way, but when her temper flares she becomes throaty, afeminine - a great boulder charging down a hill. The film draws a number of cheeky comparisons between her and a pig. We're introduced to her most beloved pet, a sow named Misery. Kathy Bates even does a hideous snorting impression, lending herself to the idea of woman as barnyard animal.
When her fantasy life is compromised, Paul pays the price - and why shouldn't he? By writing the novels he's in some way contributed to the warped pathology that drives Annie to violence and self-annihilation. As far as Annie's concerned, Paul has every right to create Misery the character, but he had no right to kill her off. In this sense, the movie explores the fraught, mysterious tensions that exists between the artist and his public. We see the idolatry and worship of the artist when he succeeds, followed by the vitriol and dehumanisation of the artist when he fails.
Misery is a comedy that works so well as a horror film we're often too nervous to laugh. The famous 'hobbling' scene, where Annie breaks Paul's legs in a macabre ceremony of devotion, is done so well that we can't quite get past our squeamishness to appreciate the dark humour of its delivery.