Remember when we ranked every Stephen King movie, and no one got hurt, and the comments section was super supportive? Time to do it all over again with the Stephen King miniseries, a category that’s near and dear, but unfortunately filled with some questionable choices. Almost all of them were made during a 20-year span starting in 1990, which means lower budgets and limitations on nudity and gore (exactly the stuff to pull back on with a King story), so you get what you pay for.
The fun thing about all of it? Even with those barriers in place, several King miniseries managed to be fantastically compelling tales of evil infecting good, and honest people doomed to lifelong nightmares.
The clowns, the haunted places, the Tommyknockers knockin’ at your door. These are the Stephen King miniseries that drove us mad.
13. The Langoliers (1995)
A middling King novella with a hell of an existential question driving it, the resulting miniseries was a cheap action movie where almost nothing happens. Someday scientists will cure all human diseases, re-freeze polar ice, eliminate poverty on a global scale, and then set their minds to why The Langoliers was 180 minutes long.
The story involves ten people on a red eye flight to Boston who wake up mid-air to find everyone else has disappeared, including the pilots. They make an emergency landing in (where else?) Maine, wander around an empty airport, theorize about time travel, then escape as metallic floating orbs with chainsaw maws give chase. The story is really about regrets and the beings tasked with destroying the past, but this miniseries is so padded that actors must have been instructed to count three-Mississippi before saying their lines. Luckily, Bronson Pinchot tried to cram the 7 years of dramatic acting he missed doing Perfect Strangers into a single performance.
12. Golden Years (1991)
Ah, the diabetic-safe mashed potatoes of the King universe. Golden Years is an interesting beast for several reasons. For one, it’s King’s horror-less sci-fi riff on Benjamin Button made specifically for television. It’s also difficult (maybe impossible?) to find in its original form. The DVD on Amazon and Netflix is a four-hour cut with a different ending meant to fix a cliffhanger that proves the show aspired to be more than a 7-part special event.
The series puts old timer Harlan Williams (Keith Szarabajka) through a freak explosion at the lab where he’s a janitor. It causes him to grow younger, which makes him a target for shadowy government organization The Shop and complicates his relationship with his wife (Frances Sternhagen). Like a lot of King’s work, the high concept is where the intrigue ends. The overlong story is a relationship drama that asks, “What if your significant other started getting younger?” but refuses to answer it either profoundly or even cleverly.
King once claimed Twin Peaks‘ success was responsible for the network taking a chance on Golden Years, saying “If you think of Twin Peaks as a man, it’s a man in delirium, a man spouting stream-of-consciousness stuff. Golden Years is like Twin Peaks without the delirium.” Well, huh. Okay then.
11. Bag of Bones (2011)
This Gothic tale of revenge and grief suffers from the flattening that too many King adaptations suffer. Pierce Brosnan does mostly strong work as best-selling novelist Mike Noonan, who spends time at a summer home to dodge writer’s block and nightmares following his wife’s violent death and the prospect that she may have been cheating on him. There, he encounters a madness that makes men in town kill their daughters.
The novel is better than good, and its grade point average is lower mostly because of a miniseries unable to produce any scares. Despite trying its little heart out.
10. Nightmares and Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King (2006)
Your mileage with this miniseries anthology may vary. The good includes William H. Macy co-starring with William H. Macy in a story about a writer getting a character to change places with him and the excruciating tale of a paralyzed man on the verge of experiencing his own autopsy. The meh includes Jeremy Sisto as an ex-con on a treasure hunt and Ron Livingston as a filmmaker recounting his brother’s experiment to end world violence. The ugly includes William Hurt battling toy soldiers and a couple (Steven Weber and Kim Delaney) accidentally stumbling into a town of rock and roll legends who are for some reason supposed to be menacing.
9. Salem’s Lot (2004)
Prepare to throw tomatoes or nod your head vigorously. The modern update is frustrating because it blends some truly unnerving scenes with unmitigated cheese. To be clear, the vampires are mostly freakish in their movements and horrifying in their attacks, and Rob Lowe holds his own as prodigal son Ben Mears despite looking like the lead singer of a Creed cover band. Andre Braugher is also the best in everything, and while Rutger Hauer is scary by default, it feels like he didn’t take the production seriously at all.
It’s also too slick for its own good–a style many horror films aped after Final Destination in 2000–and it attempted to be wholly earnest on a TV budget a decade after Scream poked holes in horror.
8. Rose Red (2002)
Conversely, Rose Red is an explosive haunted house story with the wrong actor in the lead role. Whether it’s her persona or Craig Baxley’s performance direction, Nancy Travis simply isn’t believable as the sociopathic Dr. Joyce Reardon. The good news is that Melanie Lynskey ups the prestige factor, Kimberly J. Brown is dynamite as the young telepath the house links most to, and Hooli co-founder Matt Ross is unnerving as the dweeby freak who spends the entire miniseries perpetually agitated.
The concept of a house being insane is delightful, and this miniseries gives us enough time with a large cast of characters to really dig into who they are and why the Rimbauer mansion shouldn’t be protected from demolition by the historical society.
7. 11.22.63 (2016)
Something similar could be said about the JFK assassination thriller starring James Franco, relatively sleepy (and, sorry, a bit too young) in the role of teacher Jake Epping who travels back to 1960 to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from pulling the trigger. Leave it to King to lure us in with one of the oldest time travel tricks in the book only to force his characters (and us) to live for years before getting to the fateful day.
It’s a sharp conceit that gives an otherwise high concept tale its lifeblood. There are more wrongs to “right” than just JFK’s killing, and young out-of-the-past women to fall in love with, and a big question about what era you’d want to live in if given the choice.
The funny thing is that the introduction to the story is rushed in comparison to the novel. Even with 8 episodes, a lot had to be condensed, which makes you really wonder about all the 2- and 3-parters that feel like deserts.
6. The Tommyknockers (1993)
The Tommyknockers is maybe the only example of a miniseries better than its source material, as Jimmy Smits and Marg Helgenberger deliver prestige to another tale of a small town’s minds corrupted by an outside, malevolent force. This time, it’s a massive object buried in the woods. King twists an ancient fairy tale into science fiction with a chilling ear worm of a children’s rhyme.
The varied citizens of Haven, Maine, are also a soap opera joy to watch, especially because they all develop insomnia, get super creative, and invent crazy glowing machines soon after the embedded object is unearthed. Unlike Needful Things, the plot concept is complicated enough to offer new insights and rabbit holes beyond the snowball of human failings. It’s a rare, sturdy marriage of conceit, execution, and adaptation.
5. Storm of the Century (1999)
Television producers were clearly addicted to the Small Town Infected By Evil plot that’s been repeated so often on this list and in King’s TV movies. This dark gem sets itself apart with the added tension of a tempest that keeps everyone bound to Little Tall Island (shout out to Dolores Claiborne!) while a murderer lurks among them. It also earns respect because Tim Daly–who plays the bland good guy constable–is exactly the right level of vanilla relative to the horrors that befall him and the town he’s charged with protecting.
On the other side of the chess board is an astonishingly fearsome villain named Linoge (Colm Feore). Feore (who’s first name is pronounced like “column” if your pub trivia team ever needs that) is fantastically confident in his menace, crafting a baddie that elevates this story by plunging it to worrying depths. The reveal of his true nature is satisfying and well beyond the reach of cliche, and it enhances the appreciation of Feore pulled off.
4. Salem’s Lot (1979)
This Tobe Hooper horror is the best evidence that you shouldn’t have french doors in your bedroom. Just don’t do it.
Unlike the more modern retelling, the town of Salem’s Lot feels rich and lived-in, and the terror feels oppressive instead of sharp. It’s not about seeing cool Rob Lowe solve the mystery and fight the monsters, but about seeing cool David Soul (from Starsky and Hutch) hounded by an antique evil. There’s nothing to be done if you find the make-up and effects dated, but they still hold up for me, and the lack of gimmickry that would be invented years later challenged Hooper and company to rely on mood instead of flash.
Writer Paul Monash, who also wrote an adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front which won the Emmy that year, deserves a lot of credit here as well. He treated the vampires with deadly seriousness, which gave us a freakish, horrifying Barlow straight out of Nosferatu.
3. The Shining (1997)
Stanley Kubrick’s version is one of the best horror movies of all time, and Mick Garris’s three-part series is a stirring, frighteningly faithful adaptation. That’s right. I love both of them.
Don’t believe me? Just watch.
The differences between the two are rigorously well-documented by both Kubrick obsessives (like me) and book fans (like me), but it all boils down to Jack Torrance being either a crazy eyed Jack Nicholson rolling into the Overlook like a lunatic or a regretful everyman Steven Weber who’s trying to be good despite past transgressions and a haunted hotel that wants to suck up his child’s psychic energy. The miniseries is also missing the iconic images that elevated the original film, but its four-and-a-half-hour runtime allowed for a lot of intimate moments. A cruelly transitioning Weber and a lovingly fierce Rebecca De Mornay are set squarely as susceptible victims to the hotel’s malice.
2. The Stand (1994)
Although stuck stylistically in the early ’90s (Satan would wear a denim tuxedo), Mick Garris’s 4-parter is a sprawling consideration of the Biblical end of days and a road trip from sea to shining sea. King wrote the screenplay, which is a testament to his storytelling skills and limitations–the magical realism elements largely earn big eye rolls, but the structure of the break down of society at the hands of a superflu outbreak and the resulting war between Good and Evil are masterful. It’s too blunt an instrument by today’s standards, and one day HBO will buy the rights from CBS Films to do this lustful, violent story justice (with at least 10 episodes), but it’s a revelation for a network miniseries that a certain ten-year-old kid had access to.
Let’s be honest: “one of the best King TV miniseries” is a pretty low bar to clear. Yet the horror film and thriller aspects of The Stand (especially the first episode where the government is the clear villain) are still powerful and effective. The production achievement cannot be overstated (especially after all their corn wouldn’t grow). It’s a long, strange trip out west with a war between a democratic collective in Colorado (spelled M-O-O-N) and a demonic dictatorship in Las Vegas that asks if humanity can ever learn from its mistakes.
1. It (1990)
The apotheosis of the King adaptation, complete with the fear, the heart, the friendship, and the iconic terror imagery. There’s no miniseries that gave us more memorable moments and quotable lines. The storm drain. The Losers Club. The white hair. The bath tub. Balloons in the library. Stan’s refrigerated head. The fortune cookies. The inhaler. Captain Hanscom and the pond.
It’s true. We all float down there.
We will forever wonder what might have been with George Romero behind the wheel of 8 hours of IT, but with the impossible feat of shoving a thousand-page novel into just over three hours of screentime, Lawrence D. Cohen and Tommy Lee Wallace came out of the sewer clean. Cohen had previously adapted Carrie and would go on to write The Tommyknockers. Wallace was responsible for Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Sillllllver Shamrock!). Together, these filmmakers considered King’s subtext of the damage adults do to children, knowingly and unknowingly, with a barrage of fearful icons, an unrepentant atmosphere of death, and Tim Curry’s manic perfection.