Stephen King is one of the modern masters of horror, and drama, and pretty much every kind of story there can be. But that's what happens when you've been writing nonstop for over forty years. As with many noted authors, his works have been translated to the silver screen multiple times. And the things is? He has so many stories and so many adaptations, that just by sheer numbers, the majority of them end up being pretty damn good. With the new version of his infamous It coming out later this year, I figured now was a good time to go back through his oeuvres and pull out the fifteen best movies based off the works of Stephen King. Some spoilers follow, so know that you have been warned.
THE scary clown story, and well worth a rewatch before the new remake comes out later this year. It takes place in a small town, and centers around, well, It. It is a monster that takes the form of Tim Curry as a demon clown (because sure, why not) trying to kill a group of children before returning to torment them later in their lives. A massive film, there’s a reason the upcoming remake is breaking up the story into two movies. As it is, the first half is the more effective of the two – the story of a clown just doing its level headed best to ruin these kids and their attempts to fight back is immediately engaging, scary, and entertaining. Tim Curry is at his ridiculous finest, playing up every scare with ridiculous glee. He feels like a bad circus clown, and then shifts into the horror on a dime, making it all the worse when he turns back into just a clown with a silly voice. Just wish the adult section wasn’t so dull.
So, this is the Stephen King movie about a homicidal car. So, right from the get go, you should know what you’re getting into. It’s this crazy B-movie level of plot, a weird story of a gawky teen who restores a car only to find out that it’s an evil car, which takes violent revenge on anyone who hurts it or gets in its way. But if you’re willing to run with the crazy plot, then it actually turns out to be a really fun exercise in ridiculous car killing. The car in question is continuously finding new ways to murder people, ranging from the average hit and run to the genuinely horrifying concept of having a seat bend down and crush you and every bone in your body. It’s this close to being a goofy comedy, but still manages to be effective and fun monster flick where the monster just so happens to be a homicidal car.
13 The Green Mile
Stephen King is primarily known for his horror stories, but his little dramas can hit with just as much impact. In this underrated classic, Tom Hanks plays Paul, a 1930’s cop working on death row. Paul goes about his job, dealing with cruel coworkers and pitiful prisoners, until John Coffey – played by the dearly departed Michael Clarke Duncan – comes into the prison. John possesses seemingly magical gifts, healing the diseases afflicting plaguing the guards and even bringing a dead pet mouse back from the grave. The mentally ill prisoner is kind and good, but he’s still going to die for a crime he didn’t committed. It’s a sad story, amplified by career best work from Duncan. He makes us fall in love with this gentle giant, and we feel the same anguish that fills Tom Hanks by the climax. It’s a quiet movie, even for a story with magic pet resurrection, about pain in the world and what we make of it. And it works all the better for it.
12 The Stand
This might be cheating, because it’s less of a movie and more of a TV miniseries event. But I’ve also watched the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy – extended edition no less – as one day long movie, so length doesn’t slow me down. The Stand shows us a word ravaged by a particularly powerful piece of germ warfare that’s accidentally released into the general public. Roughly 99% of the human race dies to the virus, leaving the survivors to try and make a new world from the ruins. Truly epic in scale and tone, The Stand juggles a massive cast and a good old fashioned battle of good versus evil. It’s so 80’s it hurts, and that’s part of the charm. What if the big bad at the end of the world was some shady douche in cowboy boots? What if armageddon was a nuke taking out Vegas? It’s a ridiculous story, but endearing and charming in just the right way. Plus, it opens with maybe the best musical cue ever, showing us the beginning of the end, all set to Blue Oyster Cult and "Don't Fear the Reaper."
One of the only screenplays actually written by Stephen King, Creepshow is something of a personal favorite. An anthology film, the film shows off five separate stories, which range in scares and quality. Something to Tide You Over is a throwback to pulp horror, indulging in the campy nature but still managing to be frightening. Father’s Day is a gruesome and brutal revenge story from beyond the grave. And They’re Creeping Up On You is straight up grade-A terrifying. The visual of the roaches crawling throughout and all over and out of the stingy Upson Pratt is one of the most sickening visuals King every uses, and it’s instantly memorable. And the Creep himself, the host of the proceedings, is endlessly fun and charming. It’s a fun, schlocky kind of horror story, and one that you can tell Stephen King and director George Romero are having a blast making.
10 Pet Sematary
Sometimes, dead is better. Based off King’s self-proclaimed scariest book, Pet Sematary makes a good case for being one of the most frightening movies based off his work as well. A good husband and loving father, Louis is initially skeptical when he learns about an ancient burial ground, just on the outskirts of their new home, that apparently can bring things back from the dead. Well, until he tries it on their recently killed cat, and it works. But the cat returns different, fiercer and crueler. But when his son Gage dies, Louis uses the graveyard again and brings all kinds of hell on his friends and family. A story about death, grief, and the pain of it all, it features quite possibly the scariest “evil kid” EVER, especially when he turns into a giggling murderer with a knife and habit of going for the ankles. King wanted to make the scariest story he could – and he might have succeeded.
What should be a typical spooky ghost story, 1408 surpasses any baseline expectations by just being a pretty solid spooky ghost story. It’s not an especially impressive or inventive film on paper – we follow famed “ghost story” writer Mike Enslin who is working on a book about haunted hotels. When he comes to stay at The Dolphin in New York City, it turns out he’s bitten off more than he can chew with the titular 1408. Instead, what makes the film work is the sheer execution. The film manages to take typical horror movie tricks like the jump scare or the deteriorating technology, and turn it into effective horror moments. The scene where Mike tries to call his estranged wife for help over Skype, only for the room to assume his role in the chat and lure the wife to the hotel as well? All while Mike is just punching the screen in rage? That’s effective. And, of course, there’s Samuel L. Jackson, turning what should be another boring exposition in a horror movie role into something special. He’s the best “Oh, you don’t wanna go down that road” character we’ve seen in one of these adaptations, and it’s great.
8 Children of the Corn
A movie that seems to get more frightening the older you get. And yes, it’s probably because of the prospect of an entire community of children trying to adhere to an insane belief system. In this remote town, the children all murdered the adults of the community and continue to sacrifice anyone who reaches the age of 19. Which means our married couple protagonists seemingly end up accidentally killing one of the children on the road and enter the town looking for help. What follows is an escalating sense of unease and some of the most sudden brutality to come from a Stephen King story – which is saying something. Seeing children preform such atrocities is what elevates it in the standings, and helps keep it endlessly memorable. ESPECIALLY when the powerful and terrifying mystical force that the cult sacrifices people to seems appear and just murder the hell out of someone. It’s fantastic.
7 The Dead Zone
Of course I was going to talk about that time that Christopher Walken could see the future and predict when people were going to die. What, did you think I wasn’t? When teacher Jimmy awakens from a coma, he discovers that by just touching someone, he can see the into their deepest secrets. And every attempt he makes to help people end up leading to pain. It’s a sad super hero story, where trying to avenge some terrible wrong only ends up causing more pain along the way. Walken plays him as the ultimate reluctant hero, just trying to avoid this nonsense but finding himself drawn back in, whether it’s because of a cute child in need or to help prevent a nuclear war. Seriously. Walken is pitch perfect in the film, just the saddest super hero who never wanted any of this and now finds himself stuck trying to kill the future president of the United States.
6 Shawshank Redemption
The movie that is always seems like the go-to favorite movie for everyone except me. But that’s not to say that it’s bad. A story about friendship and hope in the face of overwhelming pain and oppression, two convicts (Andy and Red) become friends during their time in prison together, until it becomes too much and Andy reveals his long standing plan to escape. It’s a haunting film, showcasing the tragedy of the penal system and the effect it can have on the mind and soul. And at its core, it’s one of the most human stories that King has ever told. It’s full of iconic moments (even if I don’t love the film, I’ll still agree that the reveal of the hole in the wall Andy has made for himself is great), and easily one of the most memorable adaptions of his stories. Just. Please. Everyone. Stop calling it the best movie ever.
5 Stand By Me
Probably the, well, “nicest” story that Stephen King has written, and it still manages to center around a corpse. A very specific one, that entices four young friends to go on an adventure to find and see for themselves. Gordie, Chris, Teddy, and Vern all have their own personal issues and problems, and they all come to light during their journey through the woods. And it’s a beautiful portrait of young friendship and how seemingly inconsequential moments can help form the basis of future adulthood. It’s also probably the best of the films based off King stories that doesn’t commit fully to the horror element – the scenes with the train racing towards them as they try to clear the bridge in time especially feel more like the best kind of Stephen Spielberg thrills than the more sinister moments that King usually peppers his horror stories with. And at its core, this story of four friends is just one of the best of its kind: a genuinely moving and funny coming-of-age story.
4 The Mist
One of the only Stephen King adaptation to actually be called better than the source material from the writer, The Mist manages to be terrifying for just, so many reasons – not least of all being the giant man eating spiders with acidic web that like to lay a colony of eggs inside people. The story follows the aforementioned mist rolling into a small New England town, and the things inside the mist that seemingly kill and consume anyone unlucky enough to be caught outside. Thomas Jane plays David, a painter who finds himself and his young son trapped in a grocery store with other survivors after the mist appears in town. The movie manages to perfectly meld the terrifying monsters with the horror that humans can inflict on one another, as religious extremist Mrs. Carmody (played expertly by Marcia Gay Harden) begins to seed dissent, suspicion, and hatred among the other survivors. It plays out like an extended and high budget episode of Twilight Zone, up to the absolutely heartbreaking and shocking finale.
One of the best horror films of the 70’s and the first of King’s stories to be adapted for the big screen, Carrie remains one of the most impressive movies made from his work. And that’s not to say the others are really ever lacking in any regard. It’s just that Carrie is almost a perfect movie. The story centers around, well, Carrie, a typical teen girl with all the insecurities and concerns that all of us have gone through at some point or another. The only difference is, she has a straight up abusive, deeply religious mother who seems to hate her daughter just as much as she loves her. Oh, and Carrie also seems to have telekinesis. The story doesn’t spend too long indulging in the mysteries that could entail from that, instead focusing on this poor girl and what happens when she’s pushed too far over the line to care anymore. It’s a horrifying story, but one where the “monster” is a scared teenage girl who just really needs a big old hug. It’s simultaneously horrifying and heartbreaking, which is sort of the core of Stephen King’s work.
2 The Shining
I don’t care that King has said he hates this adaption. I don’t care that Room 237 did its level headed best to ruin it. I don’t even care that it’s kinda confusing as hell. The Shining is one of my favorite films ever made, and I love it. Following a family that moves into the remote Overlook Hotel to serve as the caretakers over the long winter months, the Hotel quickly transforms into one of the best settings in any horror film. There’s just something off about the hotel, and it slowly drives patriarch Jack (played with a mix of manic anger and glee by Jack Nicholson) completely mad: Leaving psychic little boy Danny and the single most underrated female character in horror Wendy in the unfortunate position of trying not to die. Their attempts to escape Jack in the labyrinth of halls and then the actual hedge maze are some of the best horror scenes ever put to screen, and Wendy trying to get her and Danny out in time is fantastic.
CRAZY KATHY BATES.
What, I need more? Fine. Misery is horrifying, but not in the sense of haunted hotels or supernatural beasts. No, this movie mines all the scares from the seemingly benign and kind Annie Wilkes turning out to be one of the worst monsters King has ever created. When her favorite author crashes his car near her cabin in the mountains, Annie brings him back home to rest. But when she reads the manuscript for his next book and learns that he intends to kill the hero of his series, she goes nuts and proceeds to do everything she can to keep him in the house. Kathy Bates won an Oscar for her work as Annie in this film, and it’s 110% deserved. It’s horrifying, shocking, and probably the best film to be adapted from the works of Stephen King… ever.
Man, now I have to rewatch it.