There’s something horrifying about Kathy Bates’ Annie Wilkes. There’s something shocking, chilling, heart-stopping about her. And these adjectives can be appropriately applied to Misery, the film based upon Stephen King’s famous novel of the same name. Two of the most intriguing and repulsive antagonists that come to mind are the aforementioned Wilkes, played exceptionally by Bates, and Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, another King adaptation. The latter villain differs only slightly in the sense that he more rapidly succumbs to mania. He can’t contain his disgust as easily, and loses his cool more suddenly. But there’s something about both these novels that inspire a kind of madness injected into the horror. The idea of being trapped with madness, snowed-in with madness. It’s the madness that doesn’t allow you to breathe.
In Misery, the misery comes after the shock, which is why the story’s title is so fitting. It creeps in, like depression; a gradual and deep sense of helplessness. In The Shining there’s more hope all the way through, because the victims are dealing with a family member, not a complete stranger. The feelings are closer to disbelief than misery. But this horrifyingly claustrophobic concept is what provides the film its substance. And like Nicholson before her, Bates makes it her own – both stories involve a transformation, and while not quite unexpected, both transformations are plausible. You can smell them both coming.
Read at Unsung Films: Nurse Ratched: Antagonist Turned Villain.
The choice of cast is ingenious in both cases. In Bates’ and Nicholson’s eyes, the viewer picks up on something; a sense of unease, and an air of unpredictability. Think back to the way the chubby and affable nurse enters the picture for the first time as a disoriented James Caan tries to figure out where he is. Or in The Shining, the initial car journey up toward the hotel. In both cases, it is very, very obvious that something isn’t quite right. In the former instance, Caan isn’t entirely comfortable. And in the latter, it’s hard to believe that mother and son are entirely comfortable in the presence of their husband and father. This much is certain, but why?
Both antagonists understand what makes a bad guy better than most other actors of the new millennium. Does this solely come from the (admittedly high) skill level and personality of both Bates and Nicholson? Or is this also connected with something in King’s two novels? Some mysterious substance that only the author is capable of generating? Whatever it is, something sets these horror classics apart from the bulk of films categorized in the same genre.
It’s not a question of quality – there is no doubt that The Shining is the superior film of the two on all accounts – but of the qualities possessed. The sense of dread, creeping madness, of being inescapably trapped, of being contained in the unfathomable weight of the snow, the idea of absolute normality turning into hell on earth – all of these characteristics almost turn these two adaptations into a genre of their own. It is hard to forget the pinnacle of madness displayed by both antagonists in the films, and the facial expressions that transcend the art of acting and become something altogether more real and harder to bear. The most striking thing is how uncannily both villains resemble one another – though Wilkes emerged ten years after Torrance. The maddened horror and strange intrigue is almost exactly the same in both cases.
Watch Wilkes in full swing:
Watch Torrance doing what he does best: