The Best Horror Movie of 1990: Misery

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The Best Horror Movie of 1990: Misery

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

The year may say 1990, but the films of this year feel very much like an extension of the previous decade, as the slasher genre runs on fumes and increasingly moves into the world of straight-to-video. The rest of the entries are a bit lacking in all-time classics, but this is still a quality lineup with a lot of variation, which is something you won’t be able to say for much of the 1990s. Increasingly, the films here are crossing over with action (Tremors, Darkman) and comedy (Arachnophobia, The Witches), as “true horror” begins to fall a bit out of vogue.

Perhaps most prominent of the non-Misery horror films for 1990 is Jacob’s Ladder, a totally surreal voyage into the subconscious of a Vietnam veteran suffering from intense PTSD, as he attempts to reintegrate into society and finds his days full of disturbing visions of the beyond. Heavily inspired by Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (although it’s a bit of a spoiler to say so), Jacob’s Ladder is a heady and hallucinatory film with David Lynchian overtones, obsessively exploring questions of memory, consciousness and the boundary between life and death. It’s not the kind of film you embark on viewing lightly.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, 1990 is home to plenty of films that are in the “fun” vein, from the superior (and spectacularly gory) sequel Child’s Play 2, to the original battle with the carnivorous, burrowing “graboids” in Tremors, to John Goodman’s hilarious turn as exterminator Delbert McClintock in Arachnophobia. For fans of Creepshow-style horror anthologies, there’s also Tales From the Darkside: The Movie, which borrows one of the stories from Kwaidan and features a charmingly silly framing device with a little boy who has been captured by a witch, telling stories to stall for time like it’s 1001 Nights.

We’re also happy to put in a word for Tom Savini’s occasionally maligned remake of Night of the Living Dead from this year, which very effectively translates George Romero’s 1968 original for a more modern audience, empowering its female heroine to a greater extent while leaving Tony Todd’s Ben relatively intact. The only real knock on the film is the sadly absent gore effects, some of which were intentionally left out to keep the tone similar to the 1968 original, while others were left on the cutting room floor. The loss of these effects steals a bit of thunder from moments that feel like they should be more impactful—especially considering Savini’s role as one of the greatest FX wizards of all time, you’d be forgiven for expecting more of a gory spectacle here. However, if you always just wanted to see Night of the Living Dead in color, with a less annoying Barbara, this is pretty much what you were asking for.

1990 Honorable Mentions: Jacob’s Ladder, Tremors, Night of the Living Dead, Darkman, The Exorcist 3, It, The Witches, Arachnophobia, Tales From the Darkside: The Movie, Child’s Play 2, Nightbreed

The Film: Misery
Director: Rob Reiner

Horror movie settings don’t get much more intimate or minimalist than that of Misery, given that almost the entire film takes place in a remote farmhouse—and often within a single small bedroom. Of course that’s par for the course with Stephen King, given that the guy also wrote the novel Gerald’s Game, which likewise takes place entirely within a single bedroom. Such modest settings have often served as the stages for the author’s most compelling characters, and there’s no doubting that Annie Wilkes of Misery is among them. Warm, unassuming and girlishly deluded upon first inspection, her bubbly exterior hides a cold-blooded malice that is capable of erupting forth at any moment.

Truly, Annie is a fascinating individual. She abducts unfortunate author Paul Sheldon in a scenario that is ultimately a function of simple, poor luck—unless she somehow sabotaged his car, of course. What makes her especially frightening, though, isn’t even the power she holds over the recuperating Sheldon (played with sweaty panic and fake smile by James Caan). Rather, it’s her total unpredictability—you never have any idea of what seemingly innocuous thing might set her off. A seemingly reasonable request might somehow light her fuse, igniting a rage that seems to happen almost against her own will. Afterward, Annie will often look sheepish and embarrassed by her own violent outbursts—not that it will do you any good, once she’s hobbled your legs or unloaded both barrels of a shotgun into your chest. She seems constantly at war with herself, torn between a desire to please her idol and the whims of her entitled psychotic compulsions.

The only area that the film could be said to skimp on characterization is Paul himself, who despite being the viewpoint character is a bit of a blank, perhaps because that makes it easier to imagine yourself in his position. We connect with him mainly through his physicality and suffering, which Caan communicates beautifully—even watching him struggle to reach the floor and pick up a bobby pin is agonizing for the audience. Arguably most sympathetic is poor Sheriff Buster, who goes above and beyond in giving the case special attention, right up until the moment he runs afoul of Kathy Bates for the last time. The fact that he has an adorable little wife back home just twists the knife.

Misery, of course, is ultimately a horror story about being unhealthily dependent upon own personal crutches; the things we use in our lives to prop ourselves up and distract us from our faults and failings. At the same time, it’s also a story about the ownership of art. To whom does a piece of art belong? To the artist, the creator of an idea, or the legions of fans who support those artists and give them a comfortable existence? It’s impossible to watch this story and not think of a modern comparison such as George R.R. Martin, who has repeatedly insisted that he doesn’t owe his fans any conclusion to the Game of Thrones series, seemingly content to let the TV version stand in for whatever he would have written, despite it being almost universally detested. Given the vitriol hurled in every direction when that series reached its conclusion, including the petition for HBO to reshoot the final season, which received more than 1.7 million signatures, it’s not too hard to believe there could be an Annie Wilkes lurking out there.

Kathy Bates of course deserves special credit for a performance that is one of the only Academy Award winners in the history of the genre, and the only Oscar ever collected by a Stephen King adaptation. She’s at her best when casually slipping red flags into her dialogs with Paul, as when she explains that “sometimes my thinking is a little muddy—that’s why I couldn’t remember all the things they were asking me on the witness stand in Denver.” As an audience, we know the relationship between these two is eventually headed for a savage final confrontation—one that ends up being darkly humorous as well—but the joy is in the suspense of the journey.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.

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