Top Ten Best Stephen King Films
Our Ten’s List
The Carrie remake is out in theaters, pouring blood on audiences, and you may be thinking, is it worth it? Well. I don’t know. But I do know that of the eight hundred million stories Stephen King has written (conservative estimate) at least ten of them have been made into decent movies. Notice I use the term BEST* films, cause you know that there are certainly the ten WORST films. Read on, intrepid viewer, and discover which horror movies Hollywood got right in Our Ten’s List!
*Caveat: This being Halloween Week, I’m only including the scary ones. Sorry fan boys, no Stand By Me or Shawshank Redemption. I know, life’s unfair. Ask Andy Dufresne. Now get busy dying.
10. Salem’s Lot (1979)
A spiritual successor to the oldest of old school vampire movies such as Nosferatu and Bela Legosi’s Dracula, Salem’s Lot was a pure vampire story adapted to rural back-woods Maine. Which if you think about it, is just good business sense. Why would vampires schlep around the big city, where a police force is accustomed to weird shit, and is active 24 hours a day? Why not live in the boondocks and feast upon rubes? There’s one cop for every hundred miles of wilderness, and they are guaranteed to be less credulous than a NYPD officer who’s seen ten crack heads that make Dracula look like a pussy. That morning.
The imagery in this mini-series is arresting, with vampire make-up that is plain terrifying. In an age where vampires sparkle, it’s pants wetting-ly horrifying to have bald, red eyed demons, with an overbite that could pierce a suit of armor. Plus James Mason as the head vampire is all sorts of old school regal, a real blue-blood sucker. Before vampire movies went off the rails and stopped being scary, Salem’s Lot drew a line in the sand. A sand lot. Bad joke, move on…
9. Pet Sematary (1989)
Oh, Pet Sematary. While not King’s strongest trope, the ancient Native American burial ground that brings ANYTHING back to life is used quite well here. What are the two creepiest things in your house? Correct answer: your cat and your toddler. (I would also have also accepted a collection of ventriloquism dummies and old black and white porn postcards, with stains. Eww.) What two things would you miss most when they are gone? (If you are still answering Dummies and Porn, you need to stop reading now and turn yourself into the authorities. We both knew this was coming.)
So the poor schlub in this movie loses both his cat and his toddler, and is advised by the worst neighbor in the history of movies, Herman Munster (Fred Gwynne) that there is a local burial ground that will bring the dead back to life. But, oh, don’t use it. Cause stuff comes back weird. Like try to kill you all damn day weird. Oh well, ayuh, wicked pissuh.
Featuring the creepiest toddler you have ever seen (and face it, they are all terrifying) you owe it to yourself to see a 7 foot tall man have his throat ripped out by a kid in OshKosh B’Gosh.
8. Carrie (1976)
The original misfit, Brian DePalmas’ Carrie was played as the anti-teen movie. Every trope of the outcast coming out on top is turned on its ear, and it turns out that beating the high holy heck out of the weirdos is actually an adaptive defense mechanism. Because the weirdo will eventually develop psychic powers and kill everyone. Who would have known? Apparently the town elders who shut down Kevin Bacon in Footloose knew that his shoes would actually open a portal to hell. Not just a portal to more shitty Kevin Bacon movies. Either way, good on them for shunning his skinny butt.
Full of iconic sequences and great visuals, this movie more than warrants a viewing, if not an investment in the latest remake.
7. The Dead Zone (1983)
The Dead Zone is an idea so good that both Hollywood and Stephen King have visited it multiple times. A horrific accident leaves Christopher Walken unable to emote in a traditional manner. Just kidding, it makes him able to see the future. More curse than blessing, Walken can see the eventual death of anyone he touches, and therefore becomes sought after by the police to solve crimes, and the rich, to avoid tragedy. A chance encounter with a power hungry senator (Martin Sheen) shows Walken that Sheen will eventually order a nuclear strike against Russia, causing a Holocaust.
Walken must now face the time travelers dilemma: if you can prevent future crime by commiting an unwarranted crime in the present, do you have to do a split in your kitchen like Jean-Claude Van Damme? And could Christopher Walken even pull it off? You’ll have to see, in this dark and fatalistic morality tale full of talent.
6. Needful Things (1993)
Now we’re getting good. Needful Things is one of my favorite Stephen King novels, because it turns so simply and deliciously on a central motif: greed. Whereas most horror movies are based on lust, envy, vanity, and a touch of snobbish pride, this movie goes straight for the jugular and hits the audience where it feels most comfortable. Leland Gaunt/The Devil comes to Castle Rock, Maine in order to make a deal. The offer: any little thing your heart may desire. The price: your soul, and a dirty deed.
The premise is rock solid, as a vampire of a completely different sort from Salem’s Lot is on display. The similarities between the two movies is striking, including the profession of the stately demon who sets up shop in a small Maine town. Max Von Sydow as the Devil is a perfect fit, as he is both ceremonious, courtly, and acidly strict. Ed Harris is beyond reproach as the perpetually put upon sheriff of Stephen King‘s most beloved and bedeviled town, Castle Rock. The carnage is spectacular, ending Castle Rock as a going concern. This story was the farewell swan song of King’s strongest location, and he nails it by sending his most nefarious villain yet to the sleepy town on the coast.
This mini-series has two handicaps out of the gate: a network television release means that the seriously gruesome stuff has to be cut, and the budget constrains the talent pool. Both weaknesses are turned into strengths here, as the horror is actually highlighted by a lack of gore and wrecked body parts, and the TV-only cast of stars is surprisingly strong. Judge Harry and Jack Ritter hold their own, and the young talent that makes up half of the story is incredibly top notch. And they leave out the horrendous under age sex from the novel. Seriously, Stephen King wrote a heart-felt and touching gang bang into his coming of age story about misfits battling a demented immortal demon that prefers to manifest as a clown. None of that sentence makes sense. I give up.
If you want to really know how I feel about this movie, it’s been covered in greater detail here.
4. The Stand (1994)
The milestone mini-series for Stephen King fans, The Stand is an oddity. It’s not relegated to TV because a movie was too good for the story. A movie would have been a detriment to the sheer volume of great characters and the breadth of action going on here. The story is about the end of the world. By plague. By the end of the first couple episodes, the surviving members of the human family of 7 billion individuals could all fit into Arnold’s Diner on an episode of Happy Days. So things are bad for us. What else could go wrong?
The walking man, that’s what. Jamey Sheridan plays Randall Flag, the emissary of bad-ass destruction, the devil made flesh in a spiffy set of cowboy boots. And boy does he chew the scenery to good effect. In a cast containing Gary Sinise, Rob Lowe, Molly Ringwald and Matt Frewer all acting admirably, Jamey walks his size nines all over their asses. There have been some amazing takers among actors for the role of the devil. Billy Zane was all swagger in Demon Knight, Al Pacino was all menace in The Devil’s Advocate, and Willem Defoe was all seduction in the super bowl car ad…But Jamey Sheridan has all three in his turn as the devil come to Earth to make sure his current batch of misery STICKS.
3. The Mist (2007)
This adaptation is particularly blessed. The director, Frank Darabont, has adapted two of the most successful Stephen King movies to date, Shawshank and The Green Mile. He gets King. He gets King so well, he rewrote the ending to The Mist to be DARKER than the original and Stephen basically said, yeah, sweet, do it. If you can out bleak the lord of horror, you should get some sort of prize. I don’t know, like a huge run-away Box Office success…
Stacked with under appreciated talent headed by Thomas Jane (the best Punisher, for my money…sorry Dolph) The Mist uses very minimal gore and monster effects through most of its run time. Harkening back to classic thriller films of the 1950’s, the real tension is the interaction between characters. If you can make goosebumps appear by talking about small town zoning disputes between the two leads, I guess you can really twist the knife when giant freaking kill monsters appear.
And they do.
This movie also manages to foreground almost every simmering social issue available, from racism, class warfare, gender role, and suicide for dramatic effect. In a movie about supernatural fog that hides hideous tentacle monsters that would make Japan proud. Go see it.
2. Misery (1990)
Stephen King has a definite sub-genre he likes to work, which is the existential evil of purely natural characters. He also manages to get this complicated genre across best if Kathy Bates is involved. Both Misery and Dolores Claiborne have the eminently talented Mrs. Bates, and both are minutiae driven studies of how horrible normal people can be if they are driven hard enough or are neglected long enough.
A particularly chilling story for an author, Misery is about fan-dom taken to the sickest extreme. James Caan is the authorial stand in, a popular pulp writer who has decided to kill his leading heroine, Misery Chastain, and start fresh, on more artistically merited ground. His “number one fan”, though, has other ideas. An accident leaves the author laid up in the care of an obsessed reader, who will go to any length to ensure that Misery makes a triumphant return.
With a subtext of writer’s angst over breaking free from the shackles of a “lucky” success (which is a particular bete noir of King’s…he invented an alter ego of Richard Bachman to see if he could recreate his success as a writer without the leg up of people seeing the name Stephen King attached to the work…) this movie is dominated by the terrific performances of Caan, Bates, and other luminaries such as Lauren Bacall.
1. The Shining (1980)
Eccentric and supremely gifted director Stanley Kubrick takes an axe swing at creating a film based on King’s work. While diverging from the source material, sometimes significantly, Kubrick crafts what is probably the most iconic adaptation ever made, starring a performance by Jack Nicholson which is lauded as one of the most memorable screen villains ever created.
A recovering alcoholic and troubled writer, Nicholson’s Jack Torrance takes a job as winter care-taker for a resort lodge that closes for the season. Bringing along his wife and son, he intends to get back on track and work on a novel. His family is glad to see him taking responsibility, as Jack has a history of domestic problems. At first, things are ideal, but the hotel has a dark history. Jack’s son, Danny, has ESP and can tune into the spiritual malevolence of the place, alerting the family to the darkness surrounding them. To no avail. Jack is seduced by the spirits of the place, and begins to spiral out of control, becoming controlling and violent. Tragedy strikes, and the family is pit against the spirits of the place and the growing madness of Jack.
Iconic imagery and dialogue abound in this film. Nicholson’s portrayal of a tortured and unsettled family man is perhaps the greatest non-supernatural boogey man in film history. Certainly pop culture has been heavily influenced by this movie more than any other King creation. A cerebral horror, The Shining is once again gaining attention due to King revisiting the character of Danny Torrance in his latest novel.