I’ve been chained up on a soiled bed in a crawl space beneath the room where they film Alpha Book Club segments and demanded I rank every Stephen King movie. Was it last week? A month ago? Time moves differently here. A cat watches me at all hours, and there’s a red balloon tied to my big toe. So here I am, ranking all the author’s adaptations. No miniseries. No made-for-TV stuff–still a task only someone insane would undertake.
Why is it so difficult? The process of judging King against King from a quality standpoint isn’t just a challenge for the obvious reasons. The bloated body of work. The rabid fandom understandably willing to fight for faves. Do you judge the movie for its intrinsic value, or how well it captured King’s original tale? There’s also the breadth of the stories. They tend to fall in infinite, diametrically opposed subgroups: The b-horror schlock, the earnestly affecting dramas, the money-lined modern terrors, the art house Americana. They make for a dysfunctional family, all lumped together like this.
But that’s where I come in. If something was meant to be scary, I judged on how scary it was. Touching and humane? Campy and fun? Same thing. In other words, I ranked these films based on the criteria they set out for themselves.
Once you’re done reading, please send help.
44. RIDING THE BULLET (2004)
An eye roll in movie form, the Mick Garris directed adaptation of Riding The Bullet stretched King’s 2000 novella about a kid hitchhiking home to see his mother on her deathbed well beyond its breaking point. It’s biggest sin is self-seriousness, and the scares are like a cheap haunted house where masked weirdos half-heartedly say “Boo,” as you round the corner. Maniacal, beheaded David Arquette is a bright spot trying to shine through the black hole of this thing.
43. THE MANGLER (1995)
Based on a King short, directed by Tobe Hooper, starring Robert Englund without the striped sweater, The Mangler was billed as a collaboration between “three modern masters of horror.” It’s more on par with Death Bed: The Bed That Eats. This is one of the many cases where a filmmaker took a flimsy King premise and treated it with dead seriousness. An industrial laundry press gets possessed by a demon and starts killing? Put up a sign not to walk near it or something. There are a few fun bits of gore, and Ted Levine (somehow not a master of horror after Silence of the Lambs?) more than earns his paycheck when his coat gets caught in the evil machine, but this is plot-free horror you can tear up your claim ticket for.
42. CELL (2016)
The world’s cell phones transform their addicted users into zombie-like murderers, making it the get-off-my-lawniest of King’s concepts. Samuel L. Jackson and John Cusack look like they called their banks after every take to see if the check cleared, and the plot is a yawning stroll through the library of zombie cliches. This came out last year, which is insane, especially considering how much it feels like a quickie rip-off of The Crazies. Appropriately enough, it’s a movie that refused to stay dead long after it should have been abandoned.
41. GRAVEYARD SHIFT (1990)
With the claustrophobia of its basement tunnel setting and the horrid death bat digesting people left and right, this barrel bottom creature feature feels like an earth-set Alien that is very, very bad. Instead of watching it, seek out a supercut of Brad Dourif’s best moments, which should include a bevy of scenes where his Vietnam veteran-turned-exterminator cackles with crazed glee after yelling at rats. Find a job you love, people.
40. A RETURN TO SALEM’S LOT (1987)
Consider the next few items the gauntlet of bad sequels. Almost all are tangential to King originals, but they still adapt his characters. We’ll get through it together. Oddly enough, you won’t see Salem’s Lot on this list because it was a miniseries. Its follow-up was also barely in theaters, and it’s easy to see why. B-movie legend Larry Cohen’s cheap signature is all over it, but it manages an interesting concept about cultural relativism at its core. What happens when you respect other cultures implicitly, but one of those cultures uses human blood for fuel? Michael Moriarty plays an anthropologist who opens the movie by filming a human sacrifice he’s totally cool with. When he gets to Jerusalem’s Lot, the vampires employ him to tell their story. Toss in a Nazi hunter and an elder vamp getting stabbed with the American flag, and you get…something. Sure. It’s something.
39. THE RAGE: CARRIE 2 (1999)
Even without the looming shadow of the original hanging over it, the story of Carrie White’s half-sister (fine, whatever) is forgettable in the extreme. It follows the same basic plot, and it features a surprising number of maritime implements as murder weapons. It’s a made-for-TV level film, plagued with production problems out of the gate, that still somehow hobbled into theaters covered in blood.
38. CHILDREN OF THE CORN II: THE FINAL SACRIFICE (1993)
A textbook definition of an unnecessary sequel, this return to Nebraska also opened the door for a franchise, demon-like, to haunt the original on home video. After the devastation in Gatlin, the nearby town of Hemingford (shout out to The Stand?) takes in the poor, sadistic children who go right back to their cult worship of their shucking god and right back to killing adults. The story is as flat as the Midwest’s elevation, but you do get to see a Mac truck bounce an old lady in an electric wheelchair like a pinball into a Bingo parlor. Still, a scene where adults get together for a town meeting (how adult of them!) only to be locked inside a building that the kids light on fire is a clever, no-frills indictment of impotent authority figures, so it’s not a total wash.
37. SECRET WINDOW (2004)
It looks slick because of its budget and movie star cast, but this tale of a revenge-crazed writer (John Turturro) going after another writer (Johnny Depp) for plagiarism is a Depp-indulging trek with a telegraphed twist. For some reason, Turturro is an Amish/Hick hybrid who does his best with the dialogue even though writer/director David Koepp gives him some real mouthfuls to spit out. It’s the least eccentric of Depp’s modern performances, but that isn’t a high bar, and he really slings it wide by the time the action heats up. Proof that, when you paper over a b-movie with a bunch of money and familiar faces, you can still see the schlock beneath.
36. TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE (1990)
Quibble with its connection to King if you want, this decent anthology features an Arthur Conan Doyle story, a bit of Japanese mythology from the screenwriter behind Beetlejuice, and George Romero adapting a King story about a sly cat executing karmic revenge on the owner of a pharmaceutical company. It’s upfront about its cheese, but the Cat From Hell segment also plays out with the gripping paranoia that many tell-tale heart stories posses. It’s a descent into madness with the added bonus of a cat killing a dude by crawling down his throat.
35. PET SEMATARY II (1992)
Speaking of faithful pets, Mary Lambert’s second outing with the undead franchise was more a remake than a sequel, except there is a dog instead of a cat this time, and it’s a commentary on the frustrating teenage cusp of adulthood instead of a warning not to live near a highway where pets and people get run over all the time. With a protective, zombie attack dog, it’s like a blend of Pet Sematary and Cujo, and young Edward Furlong brings his angsty brooding John Connor into a horror flick. Plus, Clancy Brown is the villain! It’s stale overall (and not at all scary), and there are a lot of great ideas suffocating under the surface trying to escape.
34. A GOOD MARRIAGE (2014)
The only reason this isn’t lower on the list is Joan Allen’s performance as a loving wife who discovers that her husband (Anthony LaPaglia) is a serial killer. The story is too straightforward to be all that interesting. The game of cat and also-cat is all passable, and the thrills are largely forgettable, but Allen gets a lot of screentime to share her unthinkable panic and resolve. She gives life to a complicated character facing a dire truth about someone she loves. It’s too bad the rest of the movie is content to check boxes and move along.
33. THINNER (1996)
Once you get past the atrocious fat suit technology, this tale of a narcissistic lawyer cursed to lose weight to death is a totally not-bad movie. It’s about as average as you’d imagine a body horror flick from the director of Fright Night would be, but it’s got a winking style that replaces the slow-moving horror of King’s story into something intentionally silly. That means we get the super unthreatening Joe Mantegna telling people to say hello to his little friend and a cursed pie-wielding Gypsy man meeting his nemesis on a bench by a lighthouse. Be kind to others, everyone. And don’t hit people with your car, and then use your court connections to dodge responsibility.
32. FIRESTARTER (1984)
After helping safeguard E.T. from government asholes, a pyrokinetic Drew Barrymore gets abducted by them because, naturally, the men in suits want to use her ability to start fires with her mind as a weapon. Granted, other than camping trips, I’m not sure what else it could be used for. This movie is just ridiculous fun–made in the mold of an ’80s action movie with an adolescent girl in the Schwarzenegger role. In an alternate universe, The Thing was a box office hit, John Carpenter stayed attached to Firestarter with its original, bigger budget, and we got a better version of this junior varsity attempt.
31. SILVER BULLET (1985)
The closest thing we’ll get to Doctor Who camp connected to a King story, this movie is a horror-lite tale about a werewolf stalking a small Maine town. It’s notable for keeping its killer largely relegated to the shadows, which was a good call because the creature costume is cheap even for the time. It eventually becomes an Agatha Christie mystery about who the creature really is with Gary Busey and Everett McGill trying to out-growl each other. It’s a totally fine werewolf movie (a curiously difficult genre to get right), but it’s surprising that something with this high a body count feels like it was made for the Goosebumps crowd.
30. THE NIGHT FLIER (1997)
An incredibly cheap film that fails on almost all fronts, The Night Flier is salvaged by a dark atmosphere created not by its vampiric baddie, but by the grimacing nonchalance of Miguel Ferrer starring as a yellow journalist who chases the kind of thing he’d normally invent for headlines. Ferrer is masterful in the role, and he’s fascinating to watch. The original short story is ethereal and suggestive, a tone that doesn’t survive the blunt adaptation, but at least they got the focus on Richard Dees’s (Ferrer) voyage of self-loathing discovery right. It also features a slew of fun connections and references for King fans, including headlines in the fictional tabloid, like “Kiddie Cultists in Kansas Worship Creepy Voodoo God!” and “Satanic Shopkeeper Sells Gory Goodies!”
29. DREAMCATCHER (2003)
An unfortunate mash-up of magical realism, government conspiracy thriller, lost weekend friendship drama, and alien abduction horror, it never quite comes together to a cohesive whole. It works best when focused on the relationship between lifelong pals Devlin (Thomas Jane), Jones (Damian Lewis), Moore (Timothy Olyphant, and Beaver (Jason Lee), but a generic thriller creeps in to ruin everything, and Donnie Wahlberg as the mentally challenge telepath (a King crutch) is deeply unfortunate–and even worse when he reveals his true nature.
28. SLEEPWALKERS (1992)
This is the only time in cinematic history where we got to experience King’s storytelling without the variable of adaptation because it’s an original screenplay. Unfortunately, it’s a tale of two different movies. The first half is a fascinating love triangle between young Tanya Robertson (Madchen Amick), handsome Charles Brady (Brian Krause), and Charles’ curiously young-looking mother Mary (Alice Krige). It successfully navigates the mama’s boy psychological space familiar to thrillers with the added fun of Charles and Mary secretly being ancient energy vampire werecats who need virgins to survive. All of that devolves into a truly idiotic chase to an ending with a lot of cats and even more overacting.
27. MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE (1986)
Yes, King was a terrible director. Yes, he was coked out of his gourd during production. Yes, this is a profoundly stupid movie. While all of that’s true, it also loops all the way around its terribleness to reach the golden lands of being so bad it’s entertaining. A dude gets taken out by a vending machine, people! It’s Tremors with inanimate objects turned evil because of a comet! It will make you throw away your electric knife! Also, why were electric knives a thing anyway?! No need to over-complicate things. It’s exactly that kind of reliance on machines that this movie wishes desperately it were engaging with. But, still. Leave your Mystery Science tracks at home. This movie is a masterpiece of awful and an unintentional blast.
26. CAT’S EYE (1985)
A horror anthology batting .666, it’s all tied together by a wandering cat who witnesses the mayhem. The first story sees chainsmoker dink (James Woods), who’s suckered by a cult-like group who use extreme measures to get people to kick bad habits. It’s sleazy and menacing and wonderful. The second is a straightforward piece of malice where a crime boss forces a gambler sleeping with his wife to traverse the narrow ledge around his high-rise apartment as revenge. It’s a hateful tale that’s pulled off with disgust and pulpy zeal. The third, which gives the cat its own prominent role of protecting a little girl from a troll has a sweet ending, but doesn’t work as well as the others.
25. NEEDFUL THINGS (1993)
The devil moves into a small community, offering residents desired items in exchange for small favors (that cost people their souls, no biggie). It’s a one-note concept that turns into a symphony in the hands of Max von Sydow as the calmly horrifying Leland Gaunt. King’s distrust of, if not outright disdain for, small communities that thrive on gossip and jealousy is at its heightened best here. Like a lot of his stories, Gaunt is a distillation of pure evil, but he’s not the villain. Our greed and quiet hatred of our neighbors soak every bad decision, proving that we sell our principles too cheaply. Ed Harris also does strong work as a flawed, nearly helpless hero in a movie that could have been called The Human Snowball. Too bad Castle Rock didn’t have Rick Sanchez to help them out.
24. HEARTS IN ATLANTIS (2001)
A prime example of the Great Performances in Mediocre Movies subgenre that’s no stranger to King adaptations. Telepathic Ted (Anthony Hopkins) moves into the spare room in young Bobby Garfield’s (Anton Yelchin) house, and we get to hang around the town to bare witness to all of King’s favorite things: old cars, county fairs, childhood magic, and government conspiracy thrills. Unfortunately, it’s a gauzy piece of fluff of nostalgia worship whose dramatic parts considerably outweigh the whole.
23. CREEPSHOW 2 (1987)
The list of satisfying horror anthologies is a short one, and this sequel belongs squarely in the middle. From the revenge of a wooden, Native American statue to the living sludge in the lake to the doomed fate of a hit-and-run killer, all three stories (based on King’s work, adapted by George Romero) are satisfying. The gore effects are fun, especially the oil-slick in the lake that threatens to consume the fun-loving college kids in The Raft. The hooks are all dead simple, which makes each a horror/action hybrid where increasingly desperate people do increasingly futile things to stay alive. Thanks for the ride, lady!
22. THE DARK TOWER (2017)
The adaptation (sequel?) of King’s expansive mythology of gunslingers and a tower at the center of the universe tying all stories together has the disadvantage of lacking hindsight. Almost all the other movies on this list had time to ripen, develop cult followings, or die on the vine, but the Idris Elba vs Matthew McConaughey stand-off is still fresh. It’s also aggressively mediocre. Totally fine and forgettable, and wholly unworthy of its source material thanks to a slight 90-minute runtime, a wave of unnecessary exposition, and emotional shortcuts at every turn. It will play on TBS every afternoon forever.
21. THE GREEN MILE (1999)
Lauded by critics, fans, and the Oscars, the prison narrative is egregiously long at three hours. While it explores the Kingly concept of brutality with a billy club on the outside of the bars, it does everything with sickly sentimentality and wet-eyed earnestness. It’s Forrest Gump as a death row officer. It’s also (for better and worse) a thunderously powerful role for Michael Clarke Duncan, who plays the healing telepath John Coffey, a magical black character and a Christ figure for the sins of a failing system of incarceration.
20. THE DARK HALF (1993)
An uncomplicated trek into one man’s personal demons, this is the better version of Secret Window, with Timothy Hutton as the tortured writer wrestling literally with a pen name that’s become a living second personality. George Romero directs the film in a business-like manner that suits it well, getting right to the dark heart of the matter, and treating it like a slasher flick instead of the faux-intellectual course taught by a first year psych student. Hutton works both as the befuddled author and the unstoppable killer precisely because of how unassuming and sweet he is. The performance turns on a dime, which sells a tidy, tense ride.
19. CHILDREN OF THE CORN (1984)
King successfully transplanted Summerisle into Nebraska, and this slick slasher has earned its cult status. The horror of the children murdering the adults in town is instantly visceral, and that they do it for a supernatural being bolsters how fearful we should really be. Linda Hamilton and Peter Horton play excellent rabbits in the pint-sized hunt, as dumbfounded as they are terrified. Courntey Gains as the zealous, treacherous Malachai is also casting genius, adding an extra layer of creepiness to the inherent panic of hearing children scream intently about anything.
18. CUJO (1983)
Although Cujo suffers from a thin story, the family drama that ends up trapped in a busted Ford Pinto with a blood-hungry dog foaming at the mouth outside is the stuff of nightmares. It isn’t simply about a mindless, powerful killer on the loose. It’s about redemption and saving a family (both physically and existentially) as Donna’s (Dee Wallace) extramarital affair rips her world apart even before they encounter the beast. The fear is also heightened by the believable realism and lack of a supernatural force. What Jaws did for that thing in the ocean, Cujo does for that thing asleep on your living room rug.
17. CHRISTINE (1983)
John Carpenter’s haunted Plymouth Fury horror is the natural successor to the stupidity of The Mangler. A two-tone murder machine is far more effective when you can’t simply walk around it. The Halloween-style patience applied to the tale gives it real gravitas, as does the camera’s lingering male gaze on Christine’s chrome fixtures. The film is a heart-racer, but it’s also a counterpoint to King’s usual obsession with 1950s objects and a commentary about how owning something can change us. Arnie (Keith Gordon) goes from dweeb to greaser all because he got a beat-up jalopy that evolves into a character itself. What’s more, it’s a villainous car we can’t totally fault. Why it wasn’t followed by a haunted bulldozer movie, I’ll never know.
16. NO SMOKING (2007)
The only Indian feature adaptation of King’s work, this bonkers project from Anurag Kashyap is a wild mixture of melodrama, music video edge, and demented sarcasm. It expands the cult smoking cure story James Woods starred in for Cat’s Eye. A bit overlong and too thin to carry the serious weight of its mind-bend, it’s still a bold project that feels like a psychedelic The Game with the Bollywood requisite song and dance numbers. A weird, flawed gem.
15. 1408 (2007)
Loopy and claustrophobic, the film uses frustration to create fear. John Cusack (coming as close to Nic Cage territory as Cusackly possible) plays yet another of King’s bothered horror novelists, pissed that his career consists of covering spooky supernatural nonsense he doesn’t believe in. He still reeling in a pit of cynical despair after losing his wife because they lost a child. He’s a character broken when we meet him. His confrontation with the despotic room in the Dolphin Hotel is a series of tortures that ultimately engage a sullen man to act. Like the better King horror adaptations, his sardonic humor is kept alive, which keeps the movie afloat.
14. APT PUPIL (1998)
Another sizzling bit of anger, Bryan Singer’s follow-up to The Usual Suspects centers on a SoCal student named Todd (Brad Renfro) who blackmails his Nazi neighbor (Ian McKellen) into telling him stories of the Holocaust. An old monster instructing a young one. The deeper themes never quite congeal, but Renfro and McKellen give vibrant performances as memories of violence stir something dark in each. It’s a realistic study in how a scared young man can can have his hatred nurtured by a poisonous father figure.
13. PET SEMATARY (1989)
A frightful message about accepting loss hiding in a gonzo horror flick that will make you jump to protect your Achilles heels, Mary Lambert’s film offers the dual joys of a killer kid and a meditation on what monstrous acts grief and weakness can make us do. Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) is driven to insanity by mourning his dead son Gage (Miko Hughes), but it turns out reanimating him by burying the kid in a mystical graveyard only makes things worse (shocker). The decision leads to devastation on a Greek Tragedy scale. The horror is silly, but the human torment is real.
12. THE RUNNING MAN (1987)
The Running Man is an incredibly loose adaptation of King’s book, but a fun action satire that offers Arnold Schwarzenegger the chance to flex his charm muscles. Set in 2019 after a global economic collapse, Schwarzenegger plays wrongly convicted pilot Ben Richards, who takes part in the super fun execution method/game show that sees professional killers hunt the condemned for sport, ad dollars, and audience approval. It’s Family Feud meets The Hunger Games. The film is ultimately a flattened version of the original story that confines the game show aspect to a large arena (instead of the entire world) and squashes the complexity (especially when spectacle violence is triumphant), but it’s still an energetic, smirking satire that infuses the real world with reality TV. Too real, Running Man. Too real.
11. CARRIE (2013)
A strong adaptation with excellent performances by Chloe Moretz, Judy Greer, and Julianne Moore, Kimberly Pierce’s take is penalized by coming way late to the party. However, being deemed unnecessary and a missed opportunity don’t damn this film, because what happens between the first shot and the last is terrifically capable, particularly if you think about this story of a young woman coming to terms with her extrasensory powers and her bullying peers as a tragedy with blood instead of as horror with feelings. If you don’t think a studio exec should have greenlit a reboot, that’s fair, but it exists, and Pierce utilized the opportunity to craft a sturdy, uncomfortable coming-of-age tale with a different gaze.
10. CREEPSHOW (1982)
You’ve gotta love that this debuted at Cannes (out of competition) alongside E.T. It’s still one of the best horror anthologies ever made, coming together like a fatty Twilight Zone with a punk attitude and a sick sense of humor. Homaging 1950s comic nasties like Tales from the Crypt, it’s another collaboration between George Romero and King that tackles five gross vignettes. As with all anthology, there’s some variation in quality from scene to scene, but each sequence has something to love about it–including underdog The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill which stars King himself as a country bumpkin being overrun by alien vegetation. Leslie Nielsen, Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau, and E.G. Marshall all give excellent performances in their respective tales, and a biting sense of silliness comes baked into the carnage.
9. IT (2017)
The beauty of the latest incarnation of Pennywise the Dancing Clown is his introduction to 21st century filmmaking tools. No shade toward Tim Curry’s wild-eyed beast (who you’ll find in an unsurprising spot on our ranking of the best King miniseries), but director Andy Muscietti has utilized the best advancements in CGI without leaning so heavily on them that the crutch breaks. The result is a Pennywise that lives halfway in our world of grease paint and halfway in its own world of infinite gnashing teeth. For better and worse, the film is constructed as an unrelenting line of tension, jump scare release, and new tension, so it’s less three-dimensional than it could be. The repetition also reveals the edges of the magic trick, so it’s eventually less terrifying than it is gorgeously set designed and unsettling. The childhood fears are profound, yet singular, but despite the Losers Club being defined flatly, the actors overcome the limitations with their charm and easy knuckle-to-the-shoulder friendship chemistry. And yo mama jokes. Those too.
As ever, the scariest monsters are the people. IT is faithful and scary and a sign post that we shouldn’t be afraid of getting more King on the screen.
8. THE DEAD ZONE (1983)
It’s fascinating that so many of King’s stories feature characters with super powers who regard their gifts as burdens. It works as a stellar counterweight to the way cinema typically treats people who can see the future, shoot electricity from their hands, or start fires with their minds. In David Cronenberg’s ever-topical political satire, we get both triumph and tragedy of heroism. Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) becomes a minor celebrity after gaining telepathy following a coma, but his helping a local sheriff solve a crime goes horribly wrong. Traumatized, he isolates himself, but also recognizes the responsibility he has once he realizes he has the power to change the future he sees. It’s a gut-wrenching exploration of civic duty that does the impossible by making us sympathize with a man trying to assassinate a presidential candidate. A twisted superhero origin story where the world is saved, and no one feels happy about it.
7. DOLORES CLAIBORNE (1995)
No monsters in rubber suits, no supernatural powers. Only Kathy Bates, a film noir murder mystery with melodramatic overtones, and a mother-daughter relationship to salvage. Bates is an unrelenting powerhouse in this film, taking the larger-than-life figure from King’s pages and expanding her to fill every millimeter of the screen. Dolores is a monster, but the question of the film is whether she’s a noble one. Crass and blunt and brimming with bitter one-liners, she’s deeply unlikable, but is she a murderer? Jennifer Jason Leigh plays her journalist daughter Selena, who returns home when her mother is suspected of the crime, and their bond is as much at stake as Dolores’s freedom. Forget simply being one of the best King adaptations; it’s one of the best modern crime thrillers, period.
6. STAND BY ME (1986)
Four friends. A dead body. An unforgettable afternoon. This is the bitter and the sweet that King can do so well, giving us a keyhole look into the lives of others, making us see their pain, and allowing us to share their triumphs. Gordie (Wil Wheaton), Chris (River Phoenix), Teddy (Corey Feldman), and Vern (Jerry O’Connell) are losers, and their friendship is the sun this film revolves around. Their anxiety and enthusiasm capture that in-between age as personalities are starting to crystallize, but you have little control over your own life, your family, your future. Like burying a quart jar of pennies only to have your mom throw away the treasure map. Rob Reiner’s actor-focused direction creates the perfect, endless summer day of youth as the four best pals venture to see the body of a dead boy their age. The balance between the mundane and severe is perfection–a film equally at home delighting in cherry Pez and silly vomit-based stories of revenge as it is tough, young conversations about mortality and your parents not knowing who you are.
5. THE MIST (2007)
Finally, a feel-good King adaptation, right? Frank Darabont has a profound kinship with King, understanding the master of horror’s tales at a cellular level, and his work to create a tumultuous small town disrupted by giant tentacles and arachnid limbs in a thick fog is absolutely stunning. It’s muscular and depressingly ironic and never forgets to be genuinely scary as the small group is trapped in the market. Thomas Jane and Andre Braugher do strong work as adversarial allies, but Marcia Gay Harden is a burning bush of intensity as the self-righteous religious woman who becomes the lord of the aisles. Her role made the Bush-era political timing of the film particularly resonant. And the ending! The ending! Dear, God, that ending.
4. THE SHINING (1980)
The second King story ever adapted, and a mass market first for Stanley Kubrick, it’s one of the most finely crafted horror films of all time. The story of the Torrance clan (Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, and Danny Lloyd) house-sitting for a haunted hotel has inspired a restless cult following dedicated to investigating (and creating) conspiracy theories born from the film tiniest of details. The axe-wielding Jack’s climactic storm through the hotel to murder his family is scary as hell, but the real magic is in the horrifying unease Kubrick injects into everything before it. Every inch of carpet in that hotel is soaked with dread and iconic horror imagery. A damaging, tumultuous production, an unfaithful adaptation, and a towering classic.
3. CARRIE (1976)
The world’s introduction to King as a writer became the world’s introduction to his stories as films. Before he was a brand, he was an author with a hit, and the success of Brian De Palma’s almost surely set the blood-covered stage for King’s long career in cinema. As the castigated girl with telepathic powers, Sissy Spacek plays Carrie to squirrelly perfection, and Piper Laurie embodies irrational fury as a mother who instills a terror of natural things into the heart of her supernatural daughter. Every scene is mined for discomfort and thematic exploration, finding the nooks and crannies of a girl offered no safe haven from her life. The prom gives us the memes, but the confrontation with her mother afterward is the scene of the film, exorcising all the tiny and gargantuan demons whispered into this young woman’s soul since she had her first period in the locker room showers. That’s two riveting, appalling finales for the price of one.
2. MISERY (1990)
Stop thinking about the hobbling scene. Right? You can’t. Kathy Bates dominated this film, and all of cinema that year, earning the here out of her acting Oscar by tormenting James Caan. What’s most startling about this movie is that it’s a parlor piece, really just two people talking, and yet it conveys such absolute, unflinching malice. Survival and escape become matters of intellect. The entire movie is a chase scene set in a bedroom. The idea of being held against our will is a primal fear. The idea of being held against our will by dirty bird Kathy Bates is beyond what the mind can handle. As a cherry on top, you get a stark commentary on what happens when fandom becomes fetish, and a lesson on how to see if people are moving around your house without your permission.
1. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994)
Yup. Here it is. The unsurprising pick at the unsurprising place. One of the best films of the past half-century, Darabont’s adaptation of King’s novella is rich and sublime and gruesome and humane. It’s at the top of this list because it encompasses the full scope of human emotion from humorous relief to relentless despair. Good guy Andy Dufresne’s (Tim Robbins) time of unjust incarceration is an endurance test of the spirit that we get to withstand inch by inch alongside him. The fictional prison is also populated by magnetic personalities, led by Morgan Freeman’s Red, and by ferocious monsters hiding behind cross-stitched Bible verses. Clancy Brown was a walking trauma as the chief guard, and Bob Gunton was the ideal unfeeling bureaucrat and religious supremacist bathing in hypocrisy. How mighty a movie can be, when it turns getting a few beers on a hot roof and playing an operatic aria over some loud speakers into the height of masterful rebellion and joyful exultation.
So, what did I get wrong and why?
Oh, and if you’re wondering why Lawnmower Man isn’t on this list, it’s because using a title and “also having a lawnmower” doesn’t a King adaptation make.
Images: Sony/Columbia Pictures, New Line Media, Universal, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group