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(Credit: Columbia Pictures)

Film | Opinion

Hear Me Out: Kathy Bates' Annie Wilkes is the greatest Stephen King villain

When it comes to horror, there are very few writers that can compete with Stephen King, the author of such classics as The Shining, Carrie, It, Salem’s Lot and The Mist, whose stories have been adapted countless times for the big screen. Helping to shape the landscape of modern horror with his timeless, intricate tales of monstrous creatures and dark psychological nightmares, without the influence of the author the genre would grieve a sharp, unique storyteller. 

The likes of Pennywise from It and Jack Torrance from The Shining may stand out as the most garish or most psychologically insane of the Stephen King oeuvre, though there are few villains quite as psychologically fragile and physically imposing as Annie Wilkes in the 1990 movie, Misery. Portraying a character with a deeply authentic obsession with a cultural icon, it is Kathy Bates’ astonishing performance as the villain that helps her to become so fearsome. 

A sly, intelligent psychological thriller, Misery is a compelling commentary on the nature of writing and authorship, telling the bizarre story of a relationship between an obsessive fan (Bates) who cares for a bed-bound writer (James Caan) in her secluded home. With fascinating, compelling dialogue about the nature of fandom and pop culture obsession, Misery is appreciated as one of the best Stephen King adaptations of all time. 

Simple in its narrative structure, Bates’ Annie Wilkes sits at the very heart of Misery, commanding the film with her intimidating force and volatile temperament. Rescuing the famous author, Paul Sheldon, from the wreck of the car crash, Wilkes cares for him whilst he recovers and she completes the book series for which he became so famous. Discovering the shocking climax, Wilkes is driven into a fit of rage, with the source of such hatred lying in recovery just a few rooms away, setting up a nightmarish cycle of abuse. 

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Leaving behind the fantasy of intergalactic creatures or supernatural beings, Stephen King crafts his finest villain from the most unlikely source; a seemingly innocent, nurturing older woman. Likewise, her house is like any other, besides its sheer remoteness, lined with family photos, floral wallpaper and inoffensive soft furnishings, reinforcing the fact that Wilkes is as normal as a neighbour or everyday acquaintance.  

Indeed, this is what makes the character such a compelling one, with Annie Wilkes having the potential to exist in the strange corners of reality as an obscure obsessive who could snap at the slightest pressure. A cruel, psychotic, ambitious serial killer, Wilkes is prepared to go to great lengths to benefit her own life by murdering those who are in her way, though she also displays a more chaotic side that seems to delight in dispatching her victims. 

A fallible, obsessive human, the character ultimately succumbs to her own compulsions, letting Sheldon out from his bounds in the bed in order to rewrite the ending to Misery’s Child, of which she is not a fan. Rewriting the conclusion, when it seems like Wilkes is finally content with Sheldon, the author burns his new ending to the loud dismay of the villain, attacking her fragility by denying her the reality that she cannot have.

Where Pennywise exists as a peculiar ethereal entity and Torrance is merely more than a possessed mind or malevolent spirit, the presence of Annie Wilkes is a truly terrifying one. An insane personality, betwixt good and evil, Wilkes is an obsessive who would go to great lengths to enact her inner-most desires. None of King’s other villains is quite as sadistic.

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