NEW YORK -- It was this whole new thing, Rob Reiner says. He'd lurk anxiously about the theaters where audiences were seeing test screenings of the new movie he'd directed -- "Misery," adapted from a Stephen King shocker -- and observe an entirely unaccustomed response.

"It's pretty wild to hear an audience scream and jump out of their seats," Reiner says. "I've never made an audience scream before. You could see why Hitchcock got a lot of pleasure out of making his movies."

Usually, the screen credit "A Rob Reiner Film" signals laughs, plus romance and poignancy, a` la "When Harry Met Sally ..." and "The Princess Bride." Or a drama with laughs, like his favorite, "Stand by Me." Or just plain laughs, as in the "rockumentary" called "This Is Spinal Tap." But shrieks, that's something different.

Of course, something different is the point.

King's tale about a best-selling author of romance novels, imprisoned by a psycho fan who wants him to keep cranking out more of the same, carried all kinds of personal resonance. There clearly are parallels for King, who also wrote the short story from which "Stand by Me" was adapted. "It's an obvious interpretation," says Reiner, who's met King several times. "He's a writer who's plagued by the fact that he's succeeded in this genre. ... An exceptional writer who doesn't get credit for much" because he's the mass-marketed Duke of Dread.

"What I liked was the artist's struggle, what every creative person goes through who's fortunate enough to be successful at one sort of thing," Reiner continues. An artist trying something different after heady but straitjacketing achievement -- it's a scenario with considerable appeal for a guy who's spent years establishing his versatility as a director but, at 43, can still be hailed on the street as "Meathead."

It isn't just his eight highly rated years as Archie Bunker's son-in-law that have made Reiner feel confined to a comedic cubbyhole. It's his family history (he's the son of comedian-writer-director Carl Reiner and the ex-husband of comedian-director Penny Marshall) and his early movies (one member of of the invented heavy-metal band Spinal Tap was writing a Bach- and Mozart-influenced ballad called "Lick My Love Pump").

Even his slightly kvetchy, shoulder-shrugging interview style probably contributes: Reiner, enduring yet another promotional hotel-room chat before heading for a press junket where there will be three zillion more, is no jokemeister, but it's clear he finds aspects of the world amusing. Audiences are primed for giggles, even when he's got something else in mind.

"If you're a ballplayer, you want to be a complete ballplayer, someone who can run and hit with power and field," he analogizes. "Not everyone can do it, not everyone has the physical abilities, but you try." A complete filmmaker, it follows, can make moviegoers gasp as well as giggle.

Of course, "there is always the fear that if you do change, the audience may not follow you." Reiner's first directorial change of pace was 1986's "Stand by Me," a serious if laugh-strewn excursion into boyhood. "It's much more reflective of my personality than anything I've done," Reiner says. "It was very nerve-racking when it was released ... I thought, if they don't like this, I'm in trouble."

"They" did like it, which helps immunize Reiner against too much apprehension about "Misery." Still, he is at some pains to point out the ways in which it is "a kind of psychological chess game," a suspenseful thriller, not your cheapo blood-spurting horror flick, the kind he himself avoids. It has some laughs. In fact, "one of the fears I had was that hard-core Stephen King fans might think there's not enough blood and gore; I hope we don't disappoint them."

William Goldman's screenplay is considerably less grisly than King's novel; it's been "de-gored," Reiner says. "There are only two scenes that are at all violent."

Those two are doozies, he acknowledges, but less because of their graphic nature than the audience's involvement with the two central characters, played by James Caan and Kathy Bates as the author and the nurse who rescues and then punishes him. "Look at 'Total Recall' or 'RoboCop' or 'Dick Tracy,' people get blown away every three minutes, but it's cartoon violence," he says. "It's like Bugs Bunny -- Elmer Fudd shoots down the rabbit hole and Bugs has a blackened face and a minute later he's running around. There's no real jeopardy."

"Misery" is different, Reiner hopes, and one reason -- shall we get psychoanalytic here? Oh, let's -- is that it taps "every person's fear of being taken care of by a bad mother. ... There's a terror in being so helpless, knowing this very important person in your life could do you damage."

The atmosphere on location in Nevada, though, wasn't entirely grim. "You try to keep it light on the set because otherwise, you'd be driven crazy," Reiner says. A running gag was a completely monotone, low-volume "owww." Bates slams a 10-pound package onto the broken legs of her author-prisoner. "I'd say to Jimmy, I want you to react to this. Say 'owww,' " the director would deadpan. Another scene. Bates picks up a sledgehammer and inflicts excruciating pain. Everyone says (pianissimo, no inflection), "owww."

Then there was the neck bit. "Every day at some point I'd say to {cinematographer} Barry Sonnenfeld, 'You look a little tense. You feel tense? Sometimes if you give your neck a twist ..." Whereupon he would wrench Sonnenfeld's neck about 90 degrees to the side while the cinematographer crushed an empty plastic TicTac box behind his head. "We usually tried it on someone who was new to the set and they'd hear this crrrack and say, 'Oh God ...' "

All right, maybe it wasn't Ingmar Bergman; Reiner allowed some chuckles on screen and off. It's still a suspense thriller about a guy trying to do something different, directed by a sometime funnyman trying to do something different. Reiner identified sufficiently to see to it that while the novel ends with the writer being unable to change and accepting his artistic doom, the film concludes differently.

"That's not what happened to me," he points out. "I changed majors."