‘Misery’ at 25: The Stephen King Thriller Helped Kick Off an Extreme Era

The Rob Reiner-directed, William Goldman-scripted film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel “Misery” premiered 25 years ago today (read the original Variety review here). Kathy Bates won the 1991 Oscar for best actress for the film, which grossed $61 million on a budget of $20 million.

It significantly rejuvenated the career of James Caan, who played the bed-bound author cared for by his biggest and nuttiest fun, and introduced the world to the talents of Bates, who played that psychotic fan.

But it also suggested that mainstream audiences might find violence with a sadistic edge rather thrilling. In a set piece in the film, Bates’ Annie Wilkes breaks the feet of Caan’s author character Paul Sheldon with a sledgehammer to punish him and to more easily control him, and he lives in dread of what else she may do to him if he does not escape her clutches.

This was all far milder than torture porn, a genre that had not yet been invented. There had been splatter films before that, and a century before the Grand Guignol theater — but perhaps the box office success of “Misery” and  the Oscar for Bates for her portrayal of a sadistic serial killer, voted on by the generally not horror-friendly Academy, suggested there was a broader market for such entertainment, helping to pave the way for the success of torture porn a decade or so later.

The first entry in the “Saw” series — which went on to become one of the highest-grossing horror franchises — was made for $1.2 million and grossed more than $100 million worldwide after its release in 2004. Also successful at the box office was the film franchise that inspired critic David Edelstein to invent the term “torture porn” in the first place: the “Hostel” films (read Edelstein’s New York magazine article on movies and sadism). Clearly, getting your cinematic scares with a sadistic touch was downright fashionable in the first decade of the 21st century.

Of course there’s an implicit sadistic quality to all horror films, as the audience’s enjoyment comes from  watching the extreme dismay of the characters onscreen. But the films in the torture porn genre lingered on the suffering of the victims, and the “Saw” films upped the sadistic quotient by forcing the victims to enact the grievous harm devised by the evil mastermind upon themselves.

Tellingly, King defended the movie “Hostel: Part II” and torture porn in general in a 2007 article in the Los Angeles Times, declaring, “Sure it makes you uncomfortable, but good art should make you uncomfortable.”

Broadway audiences, one would think, couldn’t be more different in their tastes and demographics than the fans of horror films, much less torture porn. And yet this fall saw an adaptation by William Goldman of “Misery” for the Broadway stage, with Bruce Willis as writer Paul Sheldon and Laurie Metcalf as Annie Wilkes (read the Variety review here). In its first week since opening, the play grossed about $900,000. Perhaps there’s a little bit of a sadist in all of us.

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