The Last Horror Blog: The 10 Best Stephen King Movies

The Last Horror Blog: The 10 Best Stephen King Movies

Nov 14, 2014

Welcome to The Last Horror Blog, a biweekly column on all things horror.


Shining Jack Nicholson

Author Stephen King has had a long and illustrious career spinning tales of terror that keep readers awake long into the night. The man is arguably the biggest name in the world of publishing, and many of his books have been translated to big and small screen. How successful those translations have been is often open to debate, because for every film like Stanley Kubrick’s take on The Shining, there’s something like The Mangler sitting right alongside it. That being said, King has had some really good films made based on his work – and to celebrate the Blu-ray release of The Dark Half this week, I’ve compiled my top 10 Stephen King horror-movies list.

Before we get started, allow me to clarify one thing up front. You won’t find The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile or Stand by Me on this list – not because I don’t think they’re amongst some of the best adaptations of King’s work, but because I wanted to focus on the horror movies, and all three of those are something else entirely.

Finally, with as huge a body of work as King has amassed during his career, there were a lot of movies that didn’t make the cut because of simple mathematics. So, I’d like to give the good old honorable mention to Apt Pupil, Pet Sematary and Creepshow – three King projects that could have easily made this list, but just missed out.

Now, on to the list – here are my top 10 Stephen King movies, presented in descending order.

Rose Red

This 2002 ABC miniseries has always struck me as one of the more underrated films in the King canon. The tale of a group of psychic researchers sent to “awaken” the monstrous energy in an abandoned Washington state mansion feels an awful lot like a sequel to The Shining (right down to the superpowerful psychic child who’s the key to reviving the long dormant evil) crossed with the story of the Winchester Mystery House, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work anyway.

Like most of King’s films, it’s not perfect – there are some really melodramatic scenes (the one between Nancy Travis and her rival professor colleague that ends with blood smears is almost painful to watch), but there are also some really frightening sequences in the film as well. King has always excelled at setting up the history of his haunted locales (the excised opening to The Shining is a fascinating look at how the Overlook became evil – or was evil all along), and he goes all out here. This means it takes a while to get to the meat of the story, but the wait is worth it. This is one of the great made for television horror films – which makes it sad that most people seem to forget it.

1408

I’ll be honest – I’m not the world’s biggest 1408 fan and really wanted to put the schlocky (but highly entertaining) Firestarter here instead. I just couldn’t justify it – no matter how much fun it is to watch Martin Sheen and George C. Scott devour scenery like it’s an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet while Drew Barrymore burns people alive. So 1408 begrudgingly earns the number nine spot.

My problem with 1408 isn’t that it’s a bad movie – it’s just a familiar one. King takes us to another haunted hotel, only this time it’s just a room and not the whole building. John Cusack winds up in a fight for his life when he enters the titular abode in order to prove it’s all a hoax. As you can imagine, it turns out he’s wrong. If you like Cusack (and Sam Jackson) and this kind of riff on the traditional haunted-hotel-room story, then 1408 offers up some genuine chills. It’s just that coming after Rose Red and The Shining, it’s hard not to feel that King is just reexploring already well-traversed paths.

The Mist

Frank Darabont’s adaptation of King’s novella of the same name (which appeared in his collection Skeleton Crew) is another title that highlights how uneven most of the adaptations of King’s work are.

The story is a bit of a modernized pastiche of Lovecraft’s work – a terrible storm comes through and leaves an ominous mist in its wake – a mist filled with strange and bloodthirsty monsters unlike anything humankind has ever seen before. A group of survivors hole up in the local grocery story, but soon the mini society starts to break down and all hell breaks loose.

Darabont has long been one of the better filmmakers when it comes to adapting King’s work (and I’d still really love to see him take a crack at The Long Walk one of these days), and he lives up to expectations for three quarters of The Mist. Unfortunately, Darabont decides to break with the novella at the end and offers up a final sequence so hackneyed and awful that it nearly ruins everything that’s come before it. The ending of the novella was much more ambiguous and interesting, but The Mist is still great – at least until the end (which some folks actually love, although I still can’t figure out why).

Carrie

I wasn’t really sure where to put Carrie on this list. Like the book that inspired it, it’s entertaining – but it’s never been one of those King titles I revist regularly. I can appreciate it for what it is, but De Palma’s screen adaptation feels kind of dated at this point. I actually even kinda liked the recent remake, although it has the same problem as the original in that it’s hard to accept Chloe Grace Moretz or Sissy Spacek as an ugly duckling type.

I think what’s really interesting about Carrie is that it’s sort of like King’s Rage in that it’s eerily prescient about bullying and school violence and how awful young adults can be toward one another. I know how Carrie ends (doesn’t everyone at this point?), yet every time I watch it I secretly hope things will go differently – that somehow Carrie White will move at the last second, or the bucket won’t flip, and she’ll get to have this one magical moment in her sad life. It never plays out that way – but I think the fact that I keep hoping it will says something about the power of the story and characters King created.

It

King’s massive 1,100-page novel is arguably my favorite of all his work – and I remember being both excited and terrified when ABC revealed it was making a four-hour miniseries based on such a huge novel. What would get lost in the translation? How would they get away with the violence and gore? Would Pennywise the Clown be as terrifying on a TV screen as he was on the page?

Turns out, most of my fears were unnecessary. It managed to fit the important parts of the book into two movies. They hired Tim Curry to be Pennywise, and he’s terrifying. The only real problem with It is that the first part of the story is way more scary and interesting than the second half. Part of this is a fault of the source material. King wrote a trippy ending to It – one that I don’t think anyone could have really filmed and made work. It looks really dated when watching it today, but there’s no denying it still has the power to scare viewers. Just post a picture of Pennywise and watch people flood the comment section freaking out about how they’re still scared of the child-murdering monster.

The Stand

King’s partnership with ABC really did work out pretty well for both parties. It gave King a platform to try to faithfully adapt his longer form work, and it gave ABC a bunch of “event” movies in an age where everyone was flocking to cable. The high point of this relationship may have come with The Stand.

King’s enormous postapocalyptic novel floated around Hollywood for years, but no one could figure out how make it and do the story justice in three hours or less (this was back in the days before you could stretch The Hobbit into three separate movies and get away with it). TV turned out to be the best option, where King and Mick Garris could craft a four-part miniseries that gave them eight hours to introduce all the characters, set up the conflict between good and evil, and try to avert the real end of the world. It worked out really well.

The Stand is one of King’s most interesting books, and the adaptation does a nice job of remaining faithful to what the author wrote while also remembering that movies are a different medium than literature. At the time, the casting was quite good – Gary Sinise and Rob Lowe had name recognition, Jamey Sheridan made a decent Randall Flagg, and people got to catch up with Molly Ringwald.

While plans to make a feature-film version of the novel are once again kicking around Hollywood, the miniseries will always have a special place in the heart of King’s fans for bringing a book that looked like it was unfilmable to the screen.

Christine

Killer car novel Christine was destined to be a movie from the very start – even while reading it, it was impossible not to see how it was going to look on the screen. Halloween director John Carpenter landed the gig of bringing the bloodthirsty car to the multiplex, and the result is one of the most entertaining King adaptations of all time.

At its core, Christine is a boy-meets-girl story – only the girl is a demonic car who will run down anyone who gets between her and her man. Keith Gordon is perfectly cast as the nerdy Arnie, with John Stockwell playing his jock best friend. Still, it’s the supporting cast who really steal the show – Carpenter filled the film with iconic character actors like Harry Dean Stanton, Robert Prosky and Roberts Blossom – and those guys steal every scene they’re in.

Christine is a lot of fun – and Carpenter was a perfect choice to make it, infusing the familiar killer-car story with enough humor and horror to make it feel unique even though we’ve seen it all before.

Misery

King’s work has given us some truly unforgettable villains, but few are as fascinating as Annie Wilkes, the deranged “number one fan” at the heart of Misery.

Brought to life in an Oscar-winning performance from Kathy Bates, Wilkes finds herself nursing her favorite author (James Caan) back to health after he crashes his car near her house. The catch is that Annie isn’t happy with Caan – because she discovers he’s about to kill off her favorite fictional character once and for all. Annie decides to convince Caan to change his mind about the new book – using some persuasive methods that involve a giant sledgehammer.

Misery is another one of those titles that seems ahead of its time – chronicling how dangerous fans can be – and how they often think their favorite creators owe them things beyond the artistic work. If they made the film today, you can be sure that Annie Wilkes would be haunting the comment sections of various websites, harrassing all the “dirty birds” who didn’t agree with her.

The Dead Zone

David Cronenberg may have been best known for his films of bodily horror, but in retrospect, he was the perfect guy to helm the big-screen version of King’s novel The Dead Zone. While the book is ostensibly about a man trying to cope with his unwanted psychic powers and readjusting to life after awakening from a coma, there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface. King’s book is a novel about loss – and focused on whether or not we’d do something that goes against our moral code in order to serve the greater good.

Cronenberg’s work on the film is sublime – clinically cool and detached, almost the antithesis of its main character played by Christopher Walken, who wears his pain and emotions on his sleeve. Walken really was perfect casting – and the matching of Cronenberg and the actor was one of those collaborations that really works. This helps The Dead Zone stand out amongst King’s oeuvre – that and the unforgettably nasty scene with the scissors.

The Shining

Stephen King can’t shut up about how much he hates Stanley Kubrick’s version of his novel The Shining, and I guess that’s his right as the creator. Of course, this doesn't change the fact that it’s misguided – with all of the crap films made based on King’s work (including his own attempt to remake The Shining for ABC), why he fixates on what is arguably the best film of the bunch sounds more like sour grapes than genuine criticism.

Kubrick’s film is undeniably a different beast than the book that inspired it (although not nearly as different as The Lawnmower Man – a movie King doesn’t seem to have much of an issue with). It’s better in many ways – it has a better ending. Kubrick continually makes you wonder if there’s really anything supernatural happening in the story at all. King’s complaints that Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance character looks a little unhinged from the start are fair, but it doesn’t ruin the story. I could talk about this all day...

That being said, Kubrick’s film is a masterpiece – claustrophobic, haunting, intense and absolutely beautiful to look at. I love King’s book. I love Kubrick’s film. I’m not sure why King continually feels the need to bitch about this. It’s not as if Kubrick’s film somehow negated the existence of the novel.

King’s issues aside, I’m confident in saying this is hands down the best film made out of a King novel. One of the greatest haunted-house films of all time, made by one of our most talented and revered filmmakers. You can’t ask for much more than that. 

 

 

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