Misery was released at a time when the prospect of a Stephen King adaptation didn't cause a great deal of excitement. There had been over a dozen features based on King's novels and short stories in the previous decade, and while a few, like 1989's Pet Sematary, were hits, most of them were critically panned and sank quickly at the box office. Just a few weeks before Misery was released, Graveyard Shift, based on a story from King's anthology Night Shift, came and went (though I just looked it up and was surprised to discover it opened at #1 in a slow week). An exception to the rule was 1986's Stand by Me, a rare adaptation of King's non-horror work, which was a critical and commercial success (and, for me, a personal favorite that only grows more poignant as I get older). King was understandably reluctant to sell the movie rights for Misery, one of his best and most personal books, a nightmare version of his experiences with less-than-stable fans of his work that, he admitted years later, was also a metaphor for his battle with addiction. Ultimately, he agreed on the condition that Rob Reiner, who directed Stand by Me, would produce or direct. Reiner agreed, and the movie he directed remains one of the stronger adaptation of King's work, anticipating the more respectable King adaptations in the decade to come.
King's novel and William Goldman's script could almost work as a play (and it has been adapted into a play since), with most of the action confined to the bedroom where writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is held captive by his "number one fan," Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates). It's a two hander that relies almost entirely on the lead performances to work, and both actors are terrific. Bates' performance is remembered for the scenes that allow her to go over the top ("HE DIDN'T GET OUT OF THE CACADOODIE CAR!"), but she's even more chilling in the scenes where she abruptly shifts from manic to depressive; as monstrous as the character becomes, Bates keeps her psychologically credible in a way that's much more frightening than if she'd been a cartoon nutjob. Caan is just as good as Paul, a role he won after it was passed on by just about every high-profile male actor of his generation, as it's almost a completely reactive role that requires the actor to stay in bed for most of the movie. However, Caan is so good that you forget about the limitations of the role; he does a great job of letting us register his fear and desperation even as he outwardly tries to placate his captor.
Caan's role here reminds a bit of James Stewart in Rear Window, and Reiner's direction is something of a valentine to Hitchcock. He makes the most of the movie's claustrophobic interiors, with cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld favoring low-angle setups from Paul's point of view that emphasize Bates' frightening control of the situation. Reiner is maybe a little more tasteful than the ideal director for the material might have been, softening a few of the book's most gruesome moments, particularly the infamous "hobbling" scene (a sledgehammer becomes Annie's weapon of choice instead of the book's axe and blowtorch). However, Reiner's softer approach probably helped the movie become a critical and commercial success, and the rare horror movie to win an Oscar for one of its performances. Reiner's company, Castle Rock (named for the fictional small town where many of King's works are set), would go on to produce several other King adaptations, including Best Picture nominees The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. Stephen King adaptations didn't become an entirely reputable prospect in the decade to come - the '90s also gave us The Mangler and The Lawnmower Man - but Misery is still one of the most successful Stephen King movies, and a darkly funny response to any fans who want him to stick to writing horror.
U.S. Release Date: November 30, 1990 (Also released that day: Diamond's Edge)
What critics said at the time:
"This all would have been perfect for a half-hour TV show or one of those horror anthology films. As it is, even the resourceful Reiner and Goldman are hard put to keep things going until the inevitable final clash. For better or worse, they don't explore the most obvious subtext: the notion that Caan's best way to escape would be to seduce Bates, who is bonkers about him. That her character is not only a psychopath but a homely psychopath might have made for an interesting digression or two, but then sex scenes are never King's strong suit." - Ralph Novak, People
"Bates turns Wilkes into the nastiest nurse to reach the screen since Louise Fletcher tormented Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Wilkes is a lonely soul whose only solace is the fantasies Sheldon spins in his books. Bates makes the transition from passive aggression in Wilkes' initial dealings with her charge to paranoid, murderous obsession with authority and conviction. The fact that her looks and manner suggest someone waiting calmly in line at the K mart checkout counter adds a telling touch of the commonplace to rank evil." - Desmond Ryan, Philadelphia Inquirer