The horror thriller is one of Hollywood’s most popular story combinations. But to do it well, the writer must explore deep into the minds of both the hero and the opponent. They are doubles of one another. The opponent’s attack is the hero’s weakness confronting him.
In Misery, we get a slick, Hollywood story that hits the right beats on the surface, but never approaches its potential. To see why this is so, let’s break this story down structurally, starting at the endpoint.
Self-Revelation: The hero’s self-revelation, the structural endpoint of any story, is not present in this picture. Our hero, Paul, is still haunted by fears of his torturer, Annie, implying that he will never be free of her.
While this sort of ending is not uncommon in horror stories, it misses tremendous possibilities. The true point of this struggle should have been to give Paul, and the audience, some insight into how he too is a kind of violent torturer of those who read his books. Without that, Paul’s experience is just an unfortunate couple of months as a victim to a psychopath.
Need: Unfortunately, there is no need established for the hero at the beginning of this script.
Paul thinks he needs to rid himself of the Misery novels and write a serious piece of fiction. But this need has nothing to do with what actually happens in the story.
Paul’s need should have been to realize his own responsibility to his readers. That would have made him an active hero capable of learning something from an ordeal he himself has caused. Instead, Paul is nothing more than a victim of a crazed attack.
Desire: Paul’s main desire in the story – what drives the action – is his effort to escape his slavery at the hands of Annie. This desire is clear and intense. But since our hero is bedridden, this desire, by itself, isn’t sufficient to sustain audience interest for two hours. So the writers give the ally – the town sheriff – the more active desire of finding out what happened to Paul.
Opponent: In horror stories the opponent is the personification of the hero’s own greatest fear and weakness. Most horror stories have a machine opponent, such as the slasher who kills and kills again.
At least in Misery the opponent is human. But just barely. We learn that the Misery books saved Annie from the despair of losing her husband. But we don’t know what they provide for her other than escapism. By the time we find out she was arrested for infant deaths, we have written her off as a nut.
This is a great loss. Becuse once the human element of the opposition has been removed, the story is nothing more than a fight to the death between a man and a monster.
This story could have been improved immeasurably had Annie shown us, not only her weakness, but Paul’s. What is his responsibility to his female readership? Is he abusing them by writing the Misery books? Is he abusing them by not writing them?
Paul is presented as a good writer confronted by a Philistine. And in fact, the film is most interesting when seen as a microcosm of the censorship battle between artists and conservatives. But the presentation is so one-sided that the audience never sees the subtle violence that a writer can commit with his words and ideas, especially against those least able to tell the difference between lies and truth.
Plan: The plan is split in two. Paul plans to call for help, drug Annie, and eventually kill her before she kills him.
The Sheriff tracks the clues that lead him to Annie’s house. Neither plan will sustain the middle of the film alone, so the writers cross-cut between the two.
Battle: Like most horror stories, this film ends with a violent battle. Had a deeper opposition of values between two human beings been set up early on, the final battle could have been more than just violence. Instead, we get a “Fatal Attraction” ending where the audience takes great pleasure in seeing this monstrous woman killed.
It’s in the battle that we see the real spirit of this film. Here is another opportunity to make fun of and abuse a woman, in this case a particularly sad and unattractive one who hasn’t the looks or skills needed to make it in this society. Instead of feeling pity for her, we want her dead.
Self-Revelation: It is not surprising then the the hero has no self-revelation about his own disdain for the women who read his books. Or about his own responsibility for this woman’s death.
Because of that, we don’t even get close to the real potential of this story: the way men and women can feed off each other’s worst traits until they destroy one another.
Or the way thinkers and leaders can lead their followers to their doom and then take no responsibility for it.
As both Misery and Fatal Attraction have shown, the horror form is very popular with audiences, especially when the writer places the story in a middle class, “realistic” environment.
But what really sets a horror script apart is a hero with a need and a self-revelation. Then the story is more than just a machine that produces blood.