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Monday, October 5, 2009

MISERY (Blu-Ray) -- DVD review by porfle

(Blu-Ray comments by Ian Friedman)

If you're a fan of Stephen King's books, you know that one of his favorite schticks is the "predicament" story. They're usually pretty simple and focus mainly on one character, with whom we identify, who is placed into a seemingly inescapable situation that will require ingenuity, endurance, and lots of suffering in order to come out of it alive. In "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon", a little girl is lost in the woods and must survive on her own for several days. In "Gerald's Game", a woman is handcuffed to a bed by her kinky boyfriend, who then dies of a heart attack and leaves her helpless. Stephen's game, it would seem, is to come up with these challenging premises which he must then write his way out of.

Rob Reiner's impeccably-filmed 1990 horror thriller MISERY, based on King's novel of the same name, places James Caan's "Paul Sheldon" into a doozy of a predicament--after crashing his car during a blizzard, he wakes up in bed in the secluded home of widowed nurse Annie Wilkes, his legs and right arm mangled.

Paul, author of a series of wildly-successful romance novels about a heroine named "Misery Chastain", is told by the sweet and attentive Annie that she is his number one fan. But when she finds out that he's killed "Misery" off in his latest novel, Annie goes off the deep end and her violent and dangerously insane side comes to the fore. Thus, Paul is helpless and at the mercy of a lunatic from whom there seems to be no escape.

Caan gives one of his best performances as a rational man who is suddenly thrust into a twisted, nightmarish ordeal of dehumanizing abuse and utter lunacy. He's very believable in the role and his expressions of guarded concern, growing alarm, and finally terror, outrage, and agony are some of the most realistic and expressive acting he's ever done.

Kathy Bates, of course, is just incredible as Annie Wilkes, every bit as much of a genuine movie monster as Mr. Hyde or the Phantom of the Opera. Clearly based in part on Genene Jones, the infamous "Texas Baby Murderer", Annie is a big woman with a big mental problem, and Bates plays the role to the hilt. Still, so powerful is her presence that she never needs to go over the top, which makes her character all the more unnervingly effective.

The direction by Rob Reiner is deviously clever. I don't think I've ever used the word "Hitchcockian" before, but I think it would apply here. Reiner seems to be having a ball shooting all sorts of different shots of walking feet, shadows under doors, etc. and editing them together to build little vignettes of mounting suspense. While Paul is creeping around the house in his wheelchair or doing something he's not supposed to be doing, we know that Annie could appear at any moment and inflict terrible punishment. Buster, the local sheriff (Richard Farnsworth), investigates Annie's house in a scene that recalls the queasy unease of Vera Miles' search of the Bates home in PSYCHO.

Annie's every tiny mood swing or irrational suspicion can bring new terror, until we're jittery with dread whenever she's onscreen. Her solution for Paul's attempts to escape captivity, while not quite as extreme as in King's novel, is still not for the squeamish. The final confrontation between the two, which could've turned out ludicrous in lesser hands, is handled extremely well.

The new Blu-Ray 2-disc set (BD/DVD) from 20th-Century Fox is 1.85:1 with English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1, and offers subtitles in all three languages. The Blu-Ray image looks pretty good. There is actually some print damage, which is a bit surprising--not too much, but that there is any is a bit strange. The picture is a little soft, but still offers a good amount of detail.

MISERY takes its time establishing the situation and characters and then building an aura of suspense that can at any moment erupt into nerve-wracking terror. It's a great example of how a movie can put the viewer through the proverbial wringer without the need for graphic violence and cheap shocks.

Buy it at

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