It really says a lot about a person when they are their own genre of storytelling. Think about that: Stephen King is one of those very rare—as in, maybe four or five authors, tops—who have such consistent draw that they are household names. Not just any household, either, but every household.
I think the reason for that is King’s ability to write normal, ordinary people. He’s very good at writing in the cadence of a persons language, and when you combine that with tendency to write from within his characters’ skulls, it seems as though he shows us ourselves in his writing. Whether or not that is intentional or just a quirk of his prose style, King’s characters get in your head. You root for them, even if you don’t particularly like them. And so when the Apocalypse happens or the big dog goes nuts or a newcomer in town stirs up all of the vampires, well, now you’ve got some skin in the game.
King’s prodigious output also accounts for a list of movies nearly as long, and while the quality of the aforementioned movies and books varies greatly, both subjectively and objectively, there are a number of great Stephen King movies that have been accidentally made out of their literary counterparts. Granted, there are also some god-awful ones, too, but we’re not here to talk about Maximum Overdrive…or Firestarter…or The Tommyknockers…or…you get the idea. For the purposes of this list, we’ll focus on the ones that cleaved most closely to the books and were also scary or horrific in some way. That’s why you won’t see Stand By Me or The Shawshank Redemption on this list, as great as they are.
5. Christine (1983)
High school milquetoast Arnie Cunningham has one friend to his name, football player Dennis Guilder. They come across a beat-to-hell 1958 Plymouth Fury that Arnie falls in love with. He buys it from one of the creepiest old junkyard men ever seen in a movie, and begins the torturous process of restoring the car (“Her name’s Christine,” the junkyard man volunteers) to keep himself from being a target of local bully and part-time Geico Insurance Caveman Buddy Repperton. The only problem is this: Christine is more than just a car, and more than a little jealous. Her influence on Arnie is noticeable, as is her instincts to protect him and take out anyone she sees as a threat to their relationship.
John Carpenter was on a roll when he agreed to direct Christine, based on Stephen King’s terrifying novel of the same name. All right, that last part was bullshit, since we’re talking about a sentient car, here. It’s the dark side of the old TV show, My Mother, the Car, played straight, and playing off of the fear of the old half-ton Detroit steel juggernauts that didn’t even have to be going fast to run you down and pulp you. Cars used to be something, and they are an inextricable part of the American Mythology, representing freedom, independence, maturity and responsibility. So when the thing we love and also take for granted starts killing people, well, that’s a recipe for horror. It’s also the territory where King likes to play and does his best work.
The movie itself makes a few shortcuts because it was 1983 and Hollywood didn’t respect prose like it does now (he said, his tongue firmly in his cheek). Carpenter uses every trick in his playbook to generate suspense, including his minimalist soundtrack (when he’s not blasting rock and roll—a rarity for him), great performances by Keith Gordon and John Stockwell as the bullied shy guy and his not-an-asshole jock friend. Harry Dean Stanton plays the detective who catches the murders that Christine is committing. It’s got all of the trappings of a vintage Carpenter flick, minus some of his auteur’s enthusiasm perhaps, but it’s still quite creepy in places, and remains an under-appreciated effort from Carpenter.
4. The Mist (2007)
A bunch of ordinary people end up in a grocery store, following a freak thunderstorm that knocks out the power. What shows up while they are all struggling with their own dramas is a bizarre, thick mist that contains…something. Lots of somethings, in fact. And the ensemble cast, which includes Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harding, Toby Jones, William Sadler, and many others, promptly revert to their most base selves. The tension between what is happening indoors is as maddening as what’s happening outdoors is frightening.
Screenwriter and director Frank Darabont boasts an impressive list of horror credentials that goes all the way back to scripts for the late 80’s re-make of The Blob (1987) and before that, Nightmare on Elm Street III: Dream Warriors (1987), which is certainly one of the better Freddy sequels. He also seems to be one of the few directors and screenwriters who understands what King is trying to get across in his fiction and has successfully translated that onto the silver screen. However, it was his screenplays for The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Green Mile (1999) that established him as the Go-To guy for King movies when Rob Reiner was unavailable.
But what Darabont really wanted to do was adapt and direct The Mist. When he finally had the confidence of the studios, and King, who let him change up the ending and add Lovecraftian monsters with his blessing, what we ended up with feels like the best parts of King’s horror stories. This is the material that King is best at depicting; it’s a trick he picked up from reading Don Robertson. Darabont wisely makes the interpersonal relationships the central focus, and then reminds us when people get out of line that the monsters are still around. A great monster movie by any measure.
3. Carrie (1976)
Carrie White, a shy, awkward, and somewhat uneducated girl, gets her period in gym and freaks out, because no one ever told her what it was or what to do. The other girls, led by Mean Girl Nancy Allen, taunt her mercilessly until the gym teacher intervenes. The school sends Carrie home to her religious, overbearing mother, who concludes that the monthlies are the result of sin, and she puts Carrie in a prayer closet to think about what she did. The school also suspends the girls who put the thumbscrews to Carrie, leaving them free to plot out an elaborate and horrible revenge scenario involving the school prom and a bucket of pig’s blood. It’s too bad that no one knows about Carrie’s latent psychic powers that are now manifesting in the wake of all this trauma…
Carrie was Stephen King’s first novel, and after the movie came out and became a smash hit, the book’s sales got a shot in the arm that led to more books and bigger audiences for same, and so for both director Brian de Palma and King, Carrie is an instrumental linchpin in their respective careers. King’s novel is really good, written in the epistolary style of past tense reportage, that gives the story and kind of grounded authenticity. Coming out of the Manson Family murders, the Ted Bundy trial, and prior to that, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, there was a real verisimilitude of authenticity to the novel that makes it all the more effective. As much as I hate Brian de Palma, even a broken clock is right twice a day. Exhibit A is Carrie, the movie that put de Palma on the map, introduced him to his ex-wife, Nancy Allen, and garnered academy award nominations for Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie as Carrie White and her deranged, unhinged, religiously fanatical mother, Margaret.
It’s worth noting that while the trend toward “realism” in film was still in effect, de Palma goes the other way with Carrie and lifts liberally from the Hitchcock playbook, as he has done his entire career. The movie is well-served by de Palma’s thievery, however. Carrie’s world is one of horrible mean girl tormentors and even when we see her psychic abilities coming out, we feel sorry for her. The movie deftly manipulates the point-of-view to rest on Carrie’s shoulders and keeps us there until the prom. Suddenly, we’re in the crowd, and Carrie doesn’t look like a victim—she looks like a monster. I contend there’s a real Frankenstein-style relationship between Carrie and her mother, literally and figuratively, and it’s both sad and necessary that they perish in flames together. Skip the sequels and the remakes. They may look slicker, but they miss the point.
2. Misery (1990)
Paul Sheldon is a writer with a long-running Victorian romance series character named Misery Chastain. It’s quite popular, but he wants to stretch himself and he’s tired of writing her. He kills Misery off in the last novel, in order to start his new book with a clean slate. But a blizzard causes him to crash his car in the middle of nowhere. He wakes up in bed, in the home of Annie Wilkes, a former nurse—his biggest fan—who vows to take care of him. He gives her the last novel to read and she flies into a rage when she reads what happens to her favorite character. She threatens him to write another manuscript or he’ll never be found again. And with that, the cat and mouse game begins.
There comes a time in every rock and roll band’s growth and development when they stop writing songs about getting their heart broken and working for a living and basically being normal people to writing songs about what it’s like being in a rock and roll band. That’s usually when the quality of the music takes a dip, too. So too it is with Stephen King, except for one thing: all of his stories about writers and their crazy fans and what it’s like to have dark thoughts and maybe those weird stories are coming from someplace else tend to be among his better works. Misery is a great example of that; an author with an urge to write something new finds himself injured and in the care of one of his fans, a disturbed woman played by Cathy Bates, who won the Oscar for her role in this movie. James Caan is the author who struggles with his captivity and finds himself writing to save his own life, even as he’s working on an escape plan.
William Goldman (The Princess Bride) wrote the screenplay, and director Rob Reiner worked closely with him to write a faithful treatment. King was initially reluctant to sell the movie rights because of the string of shitty movies based on his work, but Reiner was coming off of Stand By Me (1986), which was universally regarded at that time as the Best King Adaptation to Date. Misery is a great movie for so many reasons, chief among them is the great cast and smart directing. It’s more suspenseful than scary, but there are some truly terrifying and horrific moments (“This is called ‘hobbling,’”) that make you wonder why Meathead doesn’t direct more serious movies. There’s an inevitable Hitchcockian vibe to the movie, a la Rear Window, of course, but that is not a bad thing at all. Even with the toned down and slightly altered screenplay, the emotional core of the book was maintained, and I think it makes for a better movie. If you haven’t seen this one in a while, it’s worth re-watching.
1. It: Part 1 (2017)
The township of Derry, Maine has a perennial problem: their children just go missing. And it happens every 27 years. In 1988, Bill is looking for his kid brother, Georgie, who “went missing” a year ago (we know what happened; it’s the first scene in the movie) and he’s obsessively trying to discern where Georgie might have ended up following a ride through the sewers. Bill’s friends, all dealing with their own messed up home lives, agree to help him and also, team up against a group of bullies who are legitimately psychotic. As bad as the bullies are, though, that’s nothing compared to the clown who shows up and starts terrorizing the kids, a vintage-looking horror named Pennywise.
Director Andy Muschietti and screenwriters Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman shepherded this project for several years, at times being insistent and other times pushing firmly against studio requests, and it paid off handsomely. Ordinarily I would hate such sweeping arbitrary changes, but in this case, they made the wise decision to sew up all of the plot holes and also fix the egregious problems inherent to the book, which I unequivocally hate. I loathe this book. I am on the record as saying it’s my least favorite Stephen King novel of all time, and I’ve read The Tommyknockers, okay?
The movie is outstanding. I think this has handily supplanted the other movies on this list for managing to do the impossible: it actually fulfills the promise that the book makes (and to my mind, fails) by fixing the egregious problems with the novel (for they are legion) and keeping the out-there-where-the-buses-don’t-run whack-job jump scares, visuals, and most especially, making clowns scary again. Also, they make great use of the recent technical advances to render the clown as terrifying, and for the first time ever, translate the things I see in my head when I read the books and stories onto the silver screen. The sequel is perfectly serviceable, but it never comes close to It: Part 1. This first film stands alone as an exceptional horror romp.