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With a larger-than-life screen presence and her recent resurgence in the television series American Horror Story, it's easy to forget that Kathy Bates was essentially unknown to film audiences when she was cast as former nurse Annie Wilkes in Misery (1990), Rob Reiner's adaptation of Stephen King's 1987 novel. Her performance earned her the Academy Award for Best Actress, beating out Anjelica Huston (who had also been offered the Wilkes role) in The Grifters, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, and even Meryl Streep in Postcards from the Edge. For James Caan, too, who co-starred as incapacitated romance writer Paul Sheldon, Misery represented newfound stardom, kicking off a career renaissance for the former Hollywood Bad Boy of The Godfather (1972) and Thief (1981) fame who had been labeled "difficult," and had taken a voluntary hiatus from professional acting after his beloved sister died of leukemia in November of 1981. Former All in the Family (1971-79) star Rob Reiner, conversely, had been on an extraordinary hot streak since turning from acting to directing: cult classics like This is Spinal Tap (1984) and The Princess Bride (1987), as well as regular classics like Stand by Me (1986, also adapted from one of King's writings) and When Harry Met Sally (1989) had shown Reiner's talent across a variety of genres, and his foray into the horror-thriller with Misery was no different.



Set mostly in the wilds near Silver Creek, Colorado, Misery's plot is relatively simple: a famous writer crashes his car during a snowstorm and is rescued by a passer-by, only to discover that his "number one fan" has imprisoned him in her house under the guise of nursing him back to health. Her obsession with him and his work leads to a series of encounters between the two that escalates slowly from a disagreement over the profanity in the author's latest novel to a full-blown mortal struggle, and the pacing of this escalation is one of Misery's greatest strengths. This exemplary "slow burn" reveals director Reiner to be smart enough as a storyteller to allow Bates and Caan ample expressive space in a cramped physical one; his squarely mainstream style adapts well to each successive genre he works in, and while he will never be ranked among the esteemed "master" directors whose work comprises the rest of our series, Reiner's handling of the material utilizes the unspoken language of Hollywood Cinema to its fullest effect with no pretensions towards reinventing the wheel.



Comparing it to last week's film, Stanley Kubrick's version of King's The Shining (1980), throws Reiner's subtle hand into even greater relief: Kubrick's unmistakable directorial stamp is on every frame of The Shining, while Reiner chooses to let content to take precedence over form. Like Hitchcock before him, Reiner evinces throughout his filmography a knack for bringing out the best in his stars, albeit not without the assistance of strong writing. Never a stunning aesthetic experience like The Shining despite several visual quotes from Psycho (1960) that show Hitchock's lasting influence, Misery's own brand of greatness begins, fittingly for a movie about books and based on a book, with the words.


Novelist William Goldman, with whom Reiner had already worked on The Princess Bride (based on Goldman's own book), penned a screenplay that was generally faithful to King's novel and garnered praise from both critics and King himself, with many calling it the best King adaptation that had yet come out of Hollywood. The infamous "hobbling" scene, in which Annie tries to thwart Paul's continued escape attempts by breaking his ankles with a sledgehammer, represents one of the few major changes from the novel insisted upon by Reiner; the director decided King's version, with Annie fully chopping off one of Paul's feet with an ax, needed to be toned down, however slightly. According to the autobiography Goldman published through Pantheon Books in 2000, he originally was strongly in favor of King's version but, upon viewing the finished film, came around to Reiner's point of view and felt that the change somehow made Annie a more sympathetic character. A less magnanimous eye might see no real difference, as she still comes across overall as more of a stout, hot-tempered Nurse Ratched than some poor soul driven mad by loneliness and isolation.



Regardless, the hobbling scene remains an iconic one in the history of the horror genre and it cemented Annie Wilkes as one of modern American cinema's greatest antagonists. If Misery was somewhat overshadowed in the popular consciousness during the month of its release by huge films like Home Alone and Dances with Wolves, not to mention another Stephen King adaptation in the television mini-series It, we have all the more reason today to revisit it and appreciate the gripping performances, the terrifying yet unassuming villain, and the arresting storytelling that make Misery a different kind of masterpiece.


Misery is playing on Wednesday, October 27 at 7:30 pm and Saturday, October 30 at 9:00 pm and closes out our Horror of the Decade Series.

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Some directors excel in a genre and stick to it for life; our last two films in this series - Alfred Hitchcock in suspense and Dario Argento in the uniquely Italian slasher/mystery hybrid known as Giallo - chose such a path. Others, like this week's featured director Stanley Kubrick, find genres to be constrictive in a certain sense and seek to embrace the rules they impose only to wind up breaking them. Still others attempt to innovate while remaining squarely within generic confines, consciously toying with the audience's own expectations and by turns satisfying and subverting them. But that's for Rob Reiner next week.



Kubrick and crew took over 200 days to film The Shining, more than double the original production schedule; in that time they are said to have taken and retaken nearly every shot in the film dozens, if not hundreds of times until Kubrick, ever the perfectionist, was satisfied. A typical workday on the set lasted at least 12 hours, and star Jack Nicholson was known to have taken script changes directly from courier to garbage can, knowing that his dialogue was likely to change again by the time he had memorized it. Production difficulties aside, Kubrick, at this point over 25 years into his filmmaking career, proved himself able to transcend his source material and create something wholly unique; just as Soviet master Andrei Tarkovsky had transformed Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's simple and quick sci-fi parable Roadside Picnic into the most trenchant, poignant cross-examination of humanity ever committed to celluloid with Stalker the year before, Kubrick made over Stephen King's simple ghost story into one of the English-speaking world's greatest and most profound tales of isolation, familial relations, and eternal recurrence.


Having acquitted himself admirably in every genre from the sports drama (Killer's Kiss [1955]) to the heist film (The Killing [1956]), to the sci-fi epic (2001: A Space Odyssey [1968]), and the darkly comic political satire (Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb [1964] and A Clockwork Orange [1971]), Kubrick's shot at horror was a logical next step in the trailblazing director's heterogeneous career. In a meta-referential context, author Stephen King objected to the casting of Jack Nicholson as struggling writer Jack Torrance, fearing that the actor, just a few years removed from an Oscar win for Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), would lend his character an air of instability from the outset and transform the Overlook Hotel from a haunted house that could drive crazy anyone unlucky enough to enter it into a cranked-up amplifier of our worst natures, a cinematic oracle that challenges the viewer to "know thyself," and explore the dark parts where "all work and no play," truly, "makes Jack a dull boy."



While King may have been proven right, changing Jack from a corrupted innocent to a full-fledged deviant finally given the space to display his true nature gave Kubrick the latitude to comment on the extremes of a variety of topics, from fatherhood and American machismo, to celebrity, to death itself; the brilliance and endurance of The Shining lie not in its universality, especially in our current pandemic era when many have been closed off with loved ones for longer than is comfortable, but in its specificity, with Kubrick demanding that we see beyond what is physically on the screen and into the depths of our own souls. The Shining remains required viewing over 40 years after its release because, eschewing the confines of the literary genre from which it sprang, the horror of this cinematic experience comes not from the metaphorical ghosts that seek to drag us into the abyss of the past, but the very real phantoms of fear, trauma, and doubt that would conspire to hold us in one place forever and kill anything that offered the chance to move past them.


The Shining is playing on Wednesday, October 20th at 7:30 pm and again on Saturday, October 23rd at 9:00 pm. Casey Lehman will introduce the Wednesday screening.

TICKETS


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From one director's fiftieth film to another's first, this week we'll turn from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) to Dario Argento's stunningly assured debut, 1970s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

With this first film and throughout his career, Argento's work evinced a clear influence from that of Hitchcock, so much so that he became known to critics and audiences as the "Master of Horror" (mirroring Hitchcock's own "Master of Suspense" moniker) and even "The Italian Hitchcock". Though he is perhaps better known for his later, more graphically violent and sexual films like Deep Red (1975) and the highly-influential Suspiria (1977, remade in 2018 by Call Me By Your Name [2017] director Luca Guadagnino), Argento's work on The Bird with the Crystal Plumage stands as a more subtle, nuanced variation on the themes and aesthetics he would explore throughout his career.


Viewers familiar with Hitchcock's Psycho will recognize its influence in all 96 minutes of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, with the former film's meta-referential preoccupation with the voyeuristic aspects of cinema also in evidence right from the start of the latter. After two short introductory sequences, the film's story proper begins as a black-leather-clad figure stabs a woman in an art gallery after a struggle; Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), a writer from the U.S. living in Rome, witnesses the attack but, in his rush to offer assistance, gets trapped between the gallery's two sliding glass doors and can only watch as the wounded woman writhes in agony; with the help of another passerby, he summons the police and they are able to save her life. Here Argento turns Hitchcock's treatment of voyeurism on its head, pointedly changing the voyeur from villain, Norman Bates leering at Marion Crane through a hole in the wall as she undresses, to hero as Dalmas is horrified by the crime and (as evidenced by his actions the rest of the film) inspired to try and prevent the attacker from hurting anyone else. Argento makes the audience share the pain and fear of both victim and witness as his unflinching camera records every bit of their reactions; where Hitchcock's celebrated shower scene in Psycho had succeeded in creating a pure thrill with its quick cutting and emphatic score, Argento here presents a more complex portrayal of (attempted) murder focused less on aesthetics and more on feeling.



That is not to say that content always takes precedence over form in an Argento film - even throughout the rest of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the violence is aestheticized to a considerable degree. Just as Hitchcock had done in Psycho, Argento's film utilizes stylistic devices brought to cinema by the German Expressionist directors of the 1920s and 30s such as chiaroscuro lighting (emphasizing differences between light and shadow) and Dutch angles (where the camera is tilted off its regular horizontal orientation) to express on-screen both the inner torment of deranged killers and the overwhelming fear of their victims. Though Argento claimed in an interview that his stylistic experimentation in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage caused confusion among the executives at Titanus, the company producing the film, and nearly got him fired from his own project (as he was also co-producer and writer), the film was a hit with audiences and critics, with box office receipts doubling its production budget and garnering praise throughout Europe and the U.S. Argento has since produced an influential, unique filmography of nearly 20 films in the last 50 years that, though they vary widely in quality, audience reception, and box office success, all grow from seeds planted in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

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