“I’m your primary fan.”
Harmless praise or deranged admission? Due to Annie Wilkes, the wild-eyed, romantic potboiler-loving villain of Distress, the expression will all the time come off a bit creepy. Maybe that’s unavoidable today given the rise of poisonous fandoms, but earlier than web echo chambers bred hyper-obsessives en masse, Rob Reiner’s 1990 adaptation of the Stephen King novel plumbed the horrors of unhinged superstar worship.
Thirty years later Distress is memorable sufficient as a brisk two-hander prepared to get loony, although I can’t think about there’d be a lot to fuss over with out its prime ingredient: Kathy Bates. Her mercurial efficiency because the notorious nurse Annie is the movie’s spine, elevating what would possibly’ve been a single-note psycho-thriller right into a layered portrait of insanity and authorial anxiousness.
An understated James Caan performs Paul Sheldon, a novelist intent on retiring from a budget historic romance novels which have introduced him fame and fortune for a extra distinguished literary profession writing gritty realist fare. Lauren Bacall makes a quick look as Paul’s no-nonsense agent, however the author is swiftly plucked out of his literary milieu after a snowy automotive accident almost kills him. Annie, a neighborhood nurse, fishes Paul out of the wreckage and takes him to her distant cottage until the roads are clear and the telephone strains reconnected. His legs mangled and puffy, Paul is bedridden and fully reliant on Annie, although it’s not too lengthy earlier than her true intentions are revealed.
Kathy Bates, primarily a stage actor earlier than her Distress breakout position, received an Oscar that 12 months for her manic efficiency. Horror motion pictures rarely get the credit score they deserve amongst that physique of voters, however Bates’s win marked an exception to the rule. Alternating between gushing admirer and raw-nerved revenge-seeker, Annie bursts with contradictions. Bates imbues her character with an unsettling depth; she appears to tower over her hostage, looming over the digital camera like a hulk regardless of solely standing at 5ft 3in. One second she’s clutching her chest like a drunk schoolgirl and professing her love for Distress Chastain, the heroine of Sheldon’s in style Victorian-era collection, the following she’s going berserk and issuing demise threats when she finds out that Distress is killed within the newest guide. Imprisoning Paul and forcing him to resurrect Distress by writing a brand new novel underneath her supervision is Annie’s means of exerting authorship over a beloved narrative. It’s fan servicing taken to a literal excessive – or maybe some type of karmic payback for Paul’s devaluation of “chick lit”.
Impressed by Reiner’s emotionally rousing Stand By Me adaptation, Stephen King refused to promote the rights to Distress to anybody else. The director’s humanistic sensibility and background in comedy vibed properly with the novel’s gallows humor and its comparatively empathetic depiction of Annie. In any case, Reiner doesn’t take any huge directorial swings, nor does he veer away from the novel in any important means. Distress is an easy adaptation well executed to maintain us tense and on our toes all through Paul’s numerous escape makes an attempt. I’m inclined to dismiss the scary-silly music that swells every time Annie will get mad as corny and dated, however it’s additionally goofy in a means that acknowledges the absurdity of the scenario. Horrifyingly hilarious or hilariously horrifying? Both works when a deranged fan retains you locked away for months simply since you ruined her favourite story.
From Robert De Niro to Michael Douglas, a number of big-name actors had been approached for the position of Paul Sheldon, however solely Caan took the bait. I think about these different main males discovered it exhausting to swallow the thought of enjoying a passive sufferer to a feminine psychopath neither sex-crazed nor conventionally engaging. This was the period of erotic thrillers in spite of everything, and flicks about murderous feminine stalkers like Deadly Attraction had already left their mark.
However Distress was completely different. In putting a bizarrely infantile, mad spinster within the highlight, it had extra in widespread with the campy Grande Dame Guignol motion pictures of the 60s and 70s than it did with the smooth, sleazy chillers in style on the time. Grandmothers aren’t purported to be killers, but the knife-wielding biddies of hagsploitation cinema proved in any other case. Likewise Annie, a virginal nerd who refuses to swear, shoots a bullet by a sheriff’s stomach and smashes Paul’s ankles with two strokes of a hammer with out ever blinking a watch. Thirty years on, Distress’s gleefully demented union of innocence and brutality nonetheless captivates, even when we’re extra attuned to the darkish sides of diehards.