The madness of King

In honor of Halloween, our movie critic picks the best and worst Stephen King adaptations

The best: Kathy Bates in <i>Misery</i>, John Cusack in <i>1408</i>, Danny Lloyd in <i>The Shining</i>

The best: Kathy Bates in Misery, John Cusack in 1408, Danny Lloyd in The Shining

I used to read all of Stephen King’s books right around the time I was sprouting into the beast of a man you see today. So you can partially blame him if you don’t like me. King represented the finest in popular fiction to me, and that was back in the ‘ ‘80s when he was considered a hack.

While younger fans might think of King as a man of many genres, he was mostly about the horror when he started.

This being Halloween, I decided it would be fun to compile my best and worst list of Stephen King film adaptations. I’m going with “horror only” for this list, so no The Green Mile or The Shawshank Redemption. While those had some horror elements, like prison laundry room gang rapes, they shied away from King’s more macabre stuff.

When compiling this list, I was surprised to see that I hate more King films than I like. Also, the highpoint of Stephen King horror adaptations occurred over 30 years ago. It’s been a long time since we’ve gotten some good cinematic chills from one of the masters of modern horror.

The best

The Shining (1980): The best horror film based on a King book is still Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece starring a bug nuts Jack Nicholson as an alcoholic father who takes a job as winter caretaker for a haunted hotel. Apparently, this is also one of King’s least favorite adaptations of his work. Are you kidding, Stephen? You should be forever grateful that a maestro like Kubrick spent time on any of your work, and he improved upon your novel. I hated all of that business with the stupid boiler.

I’m currently reading Doctor Sleep, a sequel to The Shining and King’s latest novel. Maybe somebody will make a film out of it and score some good old-fashioned Stephen King cinematic scares.

Carrie (1976): This is a close runner-up for best King movie. De Palma made a swirling, surreal nightmare of a movie about a bullied telekinetic girl who doesn’t like pig’s blood on her dress. Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie both got Oscar nominations, and deserved them. As for the recently released remake from director Kimberly Pierce, it doesn’t come close to matching the splendor of De Palma at the top of his game. The Black Prom still stands as one of the greatest horror sequences of all time.

Creepshow (1982): George Romero directing an anthology of stories written directly for the screen by Mr. King? Yes, please. King himself stars in a funny, and scary, tale of a man who probably shouldn’t have touched a meteor. This film contains “The Crate,” something I count among the scariest things I’ve ever seen at the movies. It also has Leslie Nielson delivering perhaps his greatest screen performance as a jealous husband who is pretty mad at Ted Danson. This film, in many ways, best encapsulates the horror vibe King was putting out at the top of his scary game.

The Dead Zone (1983): Until I saw this film, I was unaware of Christopher Walken’s true brilliance as an actor. This is actually quite a tame movie for director David Cronenberg, who got rid of most of his gross body horror tactics to make a commercially viable and quite scary film. Yes, there’s some violence and creepy images—those kids falling through the ice while playing hockey is a visual that lingers—but the true horror came in the depiction of Martin Sheen’s crazy, apocalyptic political figure.

Misery (1990): Filmed in part at Lake Tahoe and even in Reno, this one was more of a psychological horror, but who doesn’t wince when Kathy Bates takes a sledgehammer to James Caan’s foot. That’s physical horror at its best.

Pet Sematary (1989): I remember Stephen King claiming that he would never allow this one to be made into a movie because it was “too scary.” Well, the movie got made, and I think it’s one of those pretty bad guilty pleasures. Gage the killer baby is badass, and Church the freaky cat rules. Bonus: Herman Munster as the old guy next door who gets his neck bit out.

The worst: Brian Krause in <i>Sleepwalkers</i>, <i>Cujo</i>, <i>Maximum Overdrive&8217;s</i> ‘green goblin truck’

1408 (2007): John Cusack having a truly terrible time in a hotel room, much worse than that time I stayed in a place simply called “Motel” somewhere in the northwest where a spider attempted to eat my foot.

The Mist (2007 Black and white version): I gave Frank Darabont’s adaptation of this King short story a negative review when I saw a color version of it in theaters. When I saw it in black and white, Darabont’s original intention, I just felt it worked so much better. Good, scary, paranoid fun.

The worst

Creepshow 2 (1987): The second Creepshow movie is a mess, and I think I’m one of perhaps four people in this world who have actually seen it. George Romero wrote the screenplay based on King stories. There’s really no excuse for how bad this is.

Christine (1983): When I heard my other horror hero, John Carpenter, was helming this story of a possessed car running people over—a King novel I genuinely liked—my excitement was immeasurable. The resultant film had pretty cars playing the title character, but left out the book’s scariest aspect, that of the car being possessed by a ghoulish driver and former owner named Roland LeBay. It took out the central evil, made the car crazy for no particular reason, and wound up being an over-stylized bore.

Admittedly, this movie had a little more style and finesse than some of the films listed below. In my opinion, it slandered a good novel and shat the best stuff out its exhaust pipe, so I hate it, even with its merits.

Maximum Overdrive (1986): King actually directed this, his first and only time directing a movie. The prospect of seeing a film where King controlled the scares, with Emilio Estevez (an acting hero of the young me) starring had me giddy. My joy was short lived when I realized about 15 minutes in that the film was a piece of shit. I left my hometown’s shiny new multiplex with my shoulders slumped and my head hanging low.

Thinner (1996): Sometimes, a movie just lives and dies by its makeup. This one died a pitiful, painful makeup death.

Silver Bullet (1985): Speaking of bad makeup, this werewolf film featuring Corey Haim in a wheelchair had one goofy looking dog monster. This one has gathered a little cult following, but I still think it’s a piece of poop.

Sleepwalkers (1992): Sparks native Madchen Amick (Twin Peaks) was nice to look at, but this movie about some kind of mom-and-son cat people eating their neighbors and having incest sex was a sloppy mess

The Dark Half (1993): George Romero directs another King movie, with far less success. I believe that the presence of Amy Madigan, an actress I can’t stand, torpedoed this one.

Firestarter (1984): A young Drew Barrymore pouts and starts fires with her mind. The only thing really scary about this is that the young Barrymore was apparently drinking bottles of whiskey and going to coke parties after the shoot days.

Children of the Corn (1984): This one was panned when it was first release, but has gained some sort of cult following since then. I don’t care if it’s cool to like this one. I still think it blows.

Cujo (1983) : This movie feels like it’s 10 hours long. E.T.’s mom stuck in a car with some dopey kid as a Saint Bernard drools on the windows.

Dreamcatcher (2003): Aside from being just plain stupid, this one had too much toilet horror in it. I don’t like toilet horror. I see no need for toilet horror. Stop it. Stop it with the toilet horror.