The Final Girls Club posts on the 1st, 3rd and 4th Monday of the month. It aims to take an analytical and retrospective look at female-led horror cinema and how these films hold up in the context of current issues surrounding gender, sexuality and politics.
Everyone has a character that they relate to, that they would do anything to get more of. I personally have too many to name. Society likes to claim this as an experience exclusive to teenage girls; a phenomenon condescendingly typified by ‘high-pitched, frenzied, squealing, underwear-tossing echoes’. It’s no surprise then that this idea is projected onto the protagonist of Stephen King’s Misery, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), making her a woman who has refused to ‘grow out’ of her childish habits. She is made to represent the normalisation of toxic fandom since it and women have been unfairly synonymous for generations.
This reading of Annie is valid, as at first glance, Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Stephen King’s psychological horror does seem to be a simple(ish) story about a violent psychopathic woman who is a little too obsessed with a certain book series. It is a tale easily painted as one of clear-cut morality: Annie Wilkes the villain, and Paul Sheldon (James Caan) the victim. And yet, this isn’t how I see the film. In my first introduction to Misery I saw a story where a woman was reduced by her biology and boxed into a role she never truly wanted. Ironically, both this and the more common take have a similar culprit: society’s standard for girls and women.
Misery sees Annie Wilkes as she dedicates herself to caring for famed novelist, Paul Sheldon, after she discovers his bruised and broken body in a car accident. But, as with every King story, things get weird when Paul discovers Annie is a super-fan of his book series, Misery Chastain, just as Annie learns that Paul is about to kill Misery off.
While some demonise Annie as a woman who has not moved out of the ‘toxic feminine adolescence’ stage of her life, she is also pigeon-holed as a witchly figure, the mad spinster forced to turn her energy towards raising thirteen cats — or here, towards the writing of one Mr. Paul Sheldon. A woman in her mid-late forties who is single and childless like Annie is often attributed this role, and to me Misery is a horror about enforcing strict gender stereotypes such as this. By becoming the carer for Paul who, at least at first, is welcoming of the return to pseudo-infancy, Annie is forced into a role that she doesn’t want and yet cannot reject. Put simply: she is suffocated by the idea of motherhood.
Reiner plays up Annie’s fits of temper throughout the film, amplifying the volume of Marc Shaiman’s trilling score and pushing the camera closer to her face until she looms over the screen. Her outbursts are particularly interesting in the way that they suggest a tense mother-child relationship between the two: “What’s the matter?” she screams at Paul as he lays immobilised in his bed, “I’ll tell you what’s the matter! I go out of my way for you! I do everything to try and make you happy. I feed you, I clean you, I dress you, and what thanks do I get?”. There is no mistaking this as a guardian role more so than simply one of a carer or even a romantic partner.
A note in the script reads that Annie is “in many ways a remarkable creature. Strong, self-sufficient, passionate in her likes and dislikes, loves and hates.” From the very introduction of her character, there is a clear rejection of patriarchal values. She is a woman who is strongest when she has hold of her independence and can throw herself fully into her hobbies. Misery sees these parts of her stolen. She may have been confident and content with her lifestyle of fandom and freedom, but she cannot escape the thoughts that maybe, just maybe, she would be happier with this child-figure permanently in her life.
Although we do not see much of Annie outside of her home and outside of her time with Paul, it is easy to picture the patronising sympathy of other mothers and fathers who have given up asking her “When?”. In one scene where Annie provides Paul with his nightly medicine, she walks with a melancholy expression that neither he, nor the audience, have seen from her. “You’ll never know the fear of losing someone like you if you’re someone like me,” she says to him. There is little romantic sentiment behind her words of love for Paul. The whole moment feels motherly. And yet, avoiding his gaze in the moonlight, her words aren’t provided an emotional truth, but instead shallowness. She is exhausted by this pretence but continues on anyway, even to drastic measures, so that she can keep him: her stamp of approval for motherhood and womanhood. Her “fear” does not stem from the fact she would miss him, but the relationship he provides her and, namely, the child he stands in for.
Of course, Annie isn’t completely a victim in this story, as there are parts of her history (including murders and mysterious deaths) that are left vague throughout both King’s book and Reiner’s adaption — almost as if they’re only there to make sure you know she’s a bad person, just in case you had any sympathy for her. Misery is a film that to all appearances plays into Freudian male fantasies; the subservience of a motherly figure, the satisfaction of seeing the mad spinster go mad. And while it most certainly isn’t a fantasy for women, it is a parable of sorts. It allows us a visual, if extreme, example of the misogynistic pressures weaponised against women, as well as simply an engaging character that proves that having a child doesn’t make you a good mother.
by Alex Dewing
Alex is a Country Lass studying Comparative Literature at UCL. If not found at the cinema she’ll be binge-playing video games, listening to film scores, recording YouTube videos, or planning her next film project. As a serious nerd, she’s captivated by all things Sherlock, Marvel, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and is currently learning how to lightsaber. In Bruges, The Shape of Water, and Lost in Translation are some of her favourite films but will watch anything that’s put in front of her. Find her Tweeting and Letterboxd-ing at @alex_dewing