When you think of horror literature, chances are, the first person you’ll think of is Stephen King. The living legend has carved a macabre legacy in the literary world, with over 60 novels to his name. It’s safe to say that it’s unlikely he’ll fade into obscurity.
Inevitably, when you have that many stories under your belt, it’s only so long before the silver screen comes knocking at your door, and thanks to a multitude of directors, we have a whole heap of adaptations to admire (except you, Pet Sematary 2019, I side with Holly on this one).
I guarantee that you’ll probably be able to predict some of the entries on this list, I’d like to think I have some surprises. These also aren’t necessarily going to be the ones that are the most faithful to the novel, either.
Also, bear in mind, this is entirely my opinion. If you disagree, neat.
10. Stand By Me (1986)
Stand By Me is a nostalgic trip and a rose-tinted glance back to the summers of childhood, and how adventure was on the doorstep. The story centres around the four leads Gordie (Will Wheaton), Chris (River Phoenix), Teddy (Corey Feldman), and Vern (Jerry O’Connell) on their mission to find the body of a teenager killed by a train whilst picking blueberries.
This story has been parodied a few times (I think Family Guy did it best in the Three Kings episode), but that’s because there isn’t a huge interweaving narrative like other stories, it’s just a simple adventure story that is reminiscent of childhood summers (well, not for me, I didn’t have a dead body to find).
9. Children of the Corn (1984)
If you are familiar with Stephen King’s work, you will know that he is extremely critical of organised religion, and doesn’t shy away from throwing a punch its way despite believing in the Christian God himself. Consequently, you get a fantastical jab at it in the form of Children of the Corn.
The grisly tale begins with the enlightened one, Isaac (John Franklin), convincing all the children in town to worship “He Who Walks Behind The Rows”, and consequently, they slaughter all of the adults in town (save for the engineer) and proceed to take on the chores themselves.
Critically this movie has mixed reviews, which is fair. The acting from a good chunk of the cast is sub-par (they’re kids), but I think the performance of John Franklin is what makes this an absolute star of a movie. What surprises many is that he was 23 when he played this role. Due to a deficiency in growth hormones, he looked a lot younger than his age and he blended with the cast seamlessly.
It’s campy, has a good atmosphere, and has an amazing lead villain. Check it out for certain.
8. Pet Sematary (1989)
One of the scarier novels in King’s back catalogue becomes one of the best transfers to screen. A grisly twist on the “be careful what you wish for” trope, Pet Sematary sees a man unintentionally bring a monster into his life after burying his recently deceased infant child in the titular plot of land.
There’s a lot of great things here. David Midkiff’s performance as Louis Creed is really stellar, but the actor I love most about this is Fred Gwynne, as the charming neighbour Jud. He really captures the Maine accent well and makes this morbid tale a whole lot more appealing.
However, we have to talk about Miko Hughes as Gage. Hands down one of the best performances of a child and the campy nature that he (likely unintentionally) delivers his lines with is pure gold. Definitely worth watching.
We don’t talk about the remake and refuse to acknowledge the sequel.
7. The Shining (1980)
There’s a good chance this is the first movie that comes to mind when you think of Stephen King, or even Stanley Kubrick.
Though the master of horror famously disliked this movie, The Shining has lived on through Jack Nicholson’s iconic performance as Jack Torrance; a man driven insane by the isolation and dangerous spirits within the Overlook Hotel.
Though there have been endless parodies (The Simpsons did it best, sue me), this movie still holds up as a bastion of atmospheric filmmaking. A dampener on this, however, is how traumatic filming this movie was for Shelley Duvall, who has now retreated from the spotlight. Kubrick was relentless and notoriously a perfectionist, and the negative experiences for both Duvall and Nicholson were all done to bring out their very best. Is it okay to do that in the name of art? That’s a contentious issue. What isn’t debatable is that this movie is great.
6. The Mist (2007)
Infamous for probably the bleakest ending in cinematic history, The Mist is a great tale of science interfering where it shouldn’t.
After a military experiment known as “The Arrowhead Project” unleashes a mist full of Lovecraftian horrors into a small town, people are struggling to survive and maintain their sanity.
Frank Darabont has masterfully directed several Stephen King titles (including one that will appear later on in this list), though he may be more popular now for adapting The Walking Dead for AMC (hence the number of actors from the show being here). Darabont demonstrates his masterful technique of presenting morally grey characters.
The ending is not something I’m going to spoil, but it’s not in the original story. Despite the change, Stephen King adored it and praised Darabont for something so bleak, nihilistic, and “anti-Hollywood”. It’s one of the most iconic endings in modern cinema honestly.
5. IT (2017)
You just knew Pennywise would make an appearance here.
Though admittedly I prefer Tim Curry as the crazed cosmic clown, it’s not fair to take away from Bill Skarsgard’s outing in the role. He is truly terrifying to look at (which I think takes away from it honestly).
However, the actors they got to play The Losers Club were great. Standout performers for me personally were Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh and Finn Wolfhard as Richie Tozier, though all of the actors are enjoyable to watch. They all have their own individual horror moments in the movie and that picture from Stan’s tale is downright terrifying.
The story is one of King’s darker ones, as it revolves heavily around child abuse (multiple kinds, not just violence), and how Pennywise absorbs the hate that coagulates in Derry and uses it to torment and devour the children, with the town itself barely batting an eye.
And following up with IT, we obviously have…
4. IT Chapter 2 (2019)
I know this is a controversial opinion to have, but on recollection, I genuinely do think IT Chapter 2 is better than the prequel.
Not that it doesn’t have some issues (that de-ager on the kids looks ridiculous honestly), but I think they chose the PERFECT actors for their roles. Bill Hader proves that he as a comedian can genuinely play a heartfelt and serious role (I know Richie is a comedian, hush), and I sincerely believe he deserved an Oscar, or at least a nod, for his performance here.
James McAvoy’s scene with the skateboarding child in the funhouse is honestly so damn terrifying I had legitimate nightmares about it that night, Jessica Chastain’s scene in her father’s old home was also really weird and surreal, and is extremely unnerving from the get-go, especially considering you as a viewer know what happened there.
However, the two scenes, in my opinion, that make this movie a little better than the prequel are the opening scene with the homophobic attack (it’s an uncomfortable scene, but it’s meant to be), and the ending where they revisit the quarry. The latter is so emotionally powerful that it did make me tear up a little.
3. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Basically the world’s favourite movie, right?
This is the other Darabont outing on this list (sorry Green Mile).
This movie is rightfully considered a masterpiece, it’s shot wonderfully, acted brilliantly, and deserves every bit of praise it gets.
Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman’s friendship in this movie is so believable and wonderful to watch, and seeing them reunite at the end is the most satisfying thing that could happen.
The story of hope, companionship, and (of course), redemption is explored wonderfully through Frank Darabont’s direction, and there’s not a lot else to say about this. The ending scene where Red journeys to meet Andy again with the monologue gives me shivers every time. It was criminal that it didn’t receive any of the Oscars it was nominated for.
This movie also currently sits at the highest rated on IMDB.
2. Carrie (1976)
The first of over 100 adaptations of King’s works is still one of the greatest.
Sissy Spacek’s performance in this movie is marvellous as tortured teen Carrie White, who struggles with growing up, a hyper-religious mother, a series of bullies, and let’s not forget, the telekinetic abilities that rival Jean Grey.
Her abilities manifest slowly at first, a mirror breaking and repairing itself, and then as the intensity of Carrie’s abuse builds up, so do her powers, climaxing at the now iconic prom scene. The blood, the massacre, the chaos, all hit at once in a macabre twist to her character. It’s a true testament to watching someone finally snap.
What is often overlooked is Piper Laurie, who plays Carrie’s mother. She is shrill, fanatic, and disgustingly unlikeable as she puts her daughter through the gauntlet, even locking her in a room with a bleeding depiction of Christ. She’s turned her morbid fear of sexuality in any form into her own holy weapon, fortress, and gallows; and Carrie is trapped within them all.
Though it has had some remakes that range from mediocre to passable, Carrie is still an iconic tale, and another cautionary tale about abuse.
1. Misery (1990)
This movie only gets better and more relevant with age.
The story of beloved writer Paul Sheldon, his captor Annie Wilkes, and her hysteric obsession with his creation, Misery Chastain.
This movie earned Kathy Bates her Oscar, and rightfully so. She is so damn intimidating!
After Paul Sheldon, almost spitefully, kills off his iconic character in the final novel in order to pursue more serious endeavours as a writer, Annie loses her mind, torturing him as he writes the novel she wants him to. But he can’t just “magic” Misery back to life, just like Annie Wilkes’ hero in the old movies didn’t get out of the cock-a-doodie car (I love that line so much). The movie shows Paul building up his strength and willpower to escape her clutches as soon as possible.
Stephen King has been open about his feuds with cocaine and alcohol, and it’s easy to see how the character of Annie Wilkes fits in, with her acting as the drug demanding the writer (King) to bend to her will and indulging in desire again; anything for a release. However, I think nowadays the movie is a great representation of the toxic nature of fan culture, and how people obsess over celebrities. You can spot a dozen Annie Wilkes-es in any fandom.
I discussed this with Barlow and Sta3y on an episode of Into the Nerdverse.
This is hands down, the best movie that’s spawned from Stephen King’s work.
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