Next up on Killtoberfest 2, two movies about a sociopathic nurse using physical infirmities to hold a man captive in a sick, twisted emotional relationship. Apparently it’s a subgenre all its own.
We’ll start with the classic, Rob Reiner’s Stephen King adaptation, Misery (1990).
Justly famous both for its effective thriller filmmaking and Kathy Bates’ Oscar-winning performance, it’s easy to forget just how friggin’ weird Misery really is. Pretend you haven’t heard this before: a famous writer of trashy romance novels finally kills off his ripped-bodice heroine and then writes a better book. Driving home after finishing, he gets caught in a snowstorm and his car runs off the road, dislocating his shoulder and breaking both legs in multiple places; luckily, he’s found by a local woman who just happens to be 1) his biggest fan, 2) insane, and 3) not so happy with his latest work. Like The Dark Half, it’s an absurdly specific, contrived story, but this one works better simply because it takes place in reality (nothing supernatural here), which allows it to be rigorous. Most thrillers require rigor–a strict adherence to probability, a concrete sense of space, etc–something that Misery takes pains to point out by discussing the proper way to engineer a cliff-hanger in a story. Stephen King used the narrative to explore the psychology of addiction and the double-edge blade of the imagination; Rob Reiner, whom Wikipedia notes was attracted to the idea of “a guy who needed a new challenge, who needs to push himself and grow,” seems to have conceived of Sheldon’s experience at the hands of Annie Wilkes as the world’s most extreme writer’s retreat. At any rate, both film and novel have carved out their own little iconic niche in popular culture.
Even though this is one of the better movies based off a Stephen King book, I still found myself somewhat disappointed this time around. The novel is actually one of King’s best, because his best strength as a writer is expressing the interiority of his characters, a perspective that Reiner essentially ignores. One imagines you could have gotten across Sheldon’s interior conflicts with more subjective filmmaking, but perhaps that necessary rigor would have been lost.
At any rate, it’s still a fine movie. Aside from Buster, the Sheriff looking for Sheldon (a really nice example of how to write a non-boring cop in the boring cop role), Misery is mostly a two-hander dependent on its leads to work. Luckily, they do. Bates as Wilkes is suitably creepy, even when the film is arguably underlining her performance a little too strongly (jacking up the score to emphasize her sudden turns from politeness to rage, for instance). Caan grunts and groans through a mostly physical performance, but is great at the sardonic little remarks which demonstrate he understands the absurdity underlying his situation. What the film really excels at is the relationship between the two of them, handily and patiently built by William Goldman’s screenplay; rather than something almost more symbolic than real (the way it is in the novel), that relationship is concrete and terribly fucked up. It’s a parody romance where the male/female sexual intercourse is replaced with that of a writer and reader; the real horror of the piece is that Sheldon allows himself to be seduced along those lines. Even crippled and captive, in an odd way it’s the writing itself that gives him back his power: the power any writer has over the reader he’s hooked. As the ending demonstrates, though, I think they hooked each other.
From the well-known to the obscure: the 1987 Spanish film, In a Glass Cage.
I went into this movie almost blind, frankly expecting the title to be literal. Proto-torture porn, I thought, with a woman trapped in a glass box by some madman. (I’m sure there’s a Tumblr for that.) What I got instead is sort-of what you’d get if you told Dario Argento to remake Misery and Apt Pupil at the same time in Spanish. It’s not as good as it sounds, but a fair bit creepier.
The story concerns Klaus, an elderly Nazi in exile, and Angelo, his nurse. Klaus has a history of abusing and killing young boys, taking a sensual pleasure from truly horrific acts. A suicide attempt left him weak, and he spends the film trapped in an iron lung, outside of which he cannot breathe. Klaus lives in a big, gloomy mansion with his wife and his young daughter, Rena, and their servants; into this situation comes Angelo, a mysterious stranger who claims to have nursing experience but ends up blackmailing his way into the position. Angelo gradually takes control of the house and its occupants, revealing that he has in his possession Klaus’s secret diary, which documents all of Klaus’s murders in lurid detail. For much of the film, Angelo or Klaus read from these accounts while Angelo abducts young boys and recreates their abuse and killing in front of Klaus. Is it revenge? Does Angelo admire Klaus, seek to become him?
Although too slow and repetitive for its own good (enough that I wouldn’t really recommend the movie), In a Glass Cage is, despite itself, a fascinating examination of depravity, wartime atrocity, and homosocial sadism. There are a surprising number of parallels to Misery, which I take to be two different authors tilling the same fertile patch; for example, scenes where the powerful character shaves the less powerful character’s face, or the way both couples bond through the captive’s writing. But Glass Cage stakes out a darker territory, one less interested in a tactical game of attack and escape than holding a mirror up to the past–much like the mirror that is periodically placed in front of Klaus’ face, giving him a full view of Angelo’s actions. Spain had its own bout with fascism, a period which, the film argues obliquely, was perpetrated by an older generation upon the younger; a period whose full effects are not yet apparent. The cycle of violence will continue, and it traps us as much as does our guilt–symbolized by the iron lung whose industrial, hissing rhythm provides a tense soundtrack to a parade of horrors old and new.
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