The 15 Best Stephen King Horror Adaptations
With Halloween upon us, and the latest adaptation of Stephen King’s seminal debut novel “Carrie” (see my review here) hitting theaters this week, I thought it would be fun to take a look at my favorite movie adaptations of his material. For the purposes of this list, I will only be looking at his horror-oriented material, so stuff like “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Stand by Me” is not really eligible, as great as those films and others of that nature are.
I am also forgoing ongoing series (i.e. “Under the Dome,” “The Dead Zone” show, et al.) and short-form adaptations of his work, such as the episodes of “Tales from the Darkside,” “The Outer Limits” and “The X-Files” he wrote. So, strictly big-screen adaptations and small-screen mini-series will be considered.
Last but not least, this is one person’s opinion, so feel free to include your own lists down below in the comments section! Got it? Let’s get started!
I decided to allow myself one example of the more campy King material out there, so those looking for the likes of “Maximum Overdrive” (the only adaptation directed by King himself) and “Sleepwalkers” might want to look elsewhere. Those movies are fun, but a bit on the slight side, so I’d hardly say they were the best representations of his material. I decided to include this one, because all these years later, the series is still going, having inspired a whopping nine movies to date. Not bad for a short story that clocks in at under twenty pages!
Of course, the movies are mostly terrible, but take a gander at the familiar faces that have walked the fields of terror over the years: Charlize Theron (her film debut, no less), “Buffy”-star Nicholas Brendon, Naomi Watts, Karen Black, Eva Mendes, David Carradine, Blaxsploitation legend Fred Williamson, Kane Hodder (aka “Jason” from many of the “Friday the 13th” films), Nancy Allen, Stacey Keach, and Michael Ironside.
For my money, though, the original is still the best, even if it is exceedingly silly at times. Be that as it may, it still scared the crap out of me as a kid, especially that freaky opening sequence. And villainous kids don’t get a lot creepier than John Franklin. The film also features then-future “Terminator”-star Linda Hamilton (aka “Sarah Connor”) and Peter Horton (who went on to be a director/producer for “Grey’s Anatomy,” among other prominent shows) as the couple who have the misfortune to run afoul of the titular terrors while driving cross-country.
Things don’t go well, and faster than you can say “Outlander! We have your woman!” the film turns into a showdown between the two and a group of wildly under-supervised kids trying to kill them. It’s a lot of fun, if dopier than a bushel full of rocks. The effects are strictly amateur hour, and the acting is mostly terrible, but as bad movie fodder, it’s still pretty entertaining.
2007 was a good year for King adaptations, as evidenced by this and another entry (#11) on my list. In this one, we’ve got a stellar cast that includes John Cusack in the lead, with solid support from Samuel L. Jackson, Tony Shalhoub and Mary McCormack. Though the ending was tinkered with several times- typically a bad sign- the end result is actually one of the best King adaptations in many a moon, and ranks among the best, IMHO. (You can see the alternate endings, plus an extended version of the film on DVD, FYI.)
It’s kind of a back-to-basics King story that’s probably best described as a “Shining”-like effort, only set in a single room. Just imagine the whole “Shining” book taking place in Room 217- or 237, if you’re going by the movie version- and you’ve got the general idea. The emphasis here is on building a sense of genuine dread, not covering the screen with blood and guts, so that makes it one of the filmic King’s more subtle efforts- but in a good way.
Like a lot of the mini-series adaptations of King’s work, this one is pretty flawed, and jettisons a lot of what made the book great, but when all is said and done, it definitely fares better than it has any right to, considering the source material is one of King’s longest efforts. One thing’s for sure, though: they nailed the casting of Pennywise. Tim Curry’s creepy clown is undeniably the stuff of nightmares, and if the rest of the casting is pretty iffy, for TV standards at the time, it was better than expected.
Horror and sci-fi fans will definitely get a kick out of some of the casting, though, which includes Richard Masur (“The Thing”), Jonathan Brandis (“seaQuest DSV”), Dennis Christopher (the highly-underrated “Fade to Black”), Annette O’Toole (the “Cat People” remake), Olivia Hussey (“Black Christmas”), Seth Green (“Buffy”), Emily Perkins (the “Ginger Snaps” series), Laura Harris (“Dead Like Me”) and William B. Davis (“The X-Files”), among other familiar faces like John Ritter and Harry Anderson.
Rumor has it they’re considering another adaption, this time for the big-screen, which will be divided into two parts: one for the kids’ part of the story, the other for the adults, which sounds about right. Given that some of the more horrific aspects of the novel had to be toned down for television, the definitive adaptation may yet be to come, but for now, this one has its charms, despite a lackluster finale.
This one could have gone awry in so many ways, given the subject matter, but it benefits enormously from assured, stylish direction from horror legend John Carpenter (“Halloween,” “The Thing”) and still jaw-dropping special effects. It starts out as a sort of gender-swapped “Carrie,” with Keith Gordon doing stellar work as the much put-upon geek Arnie, who finds his way to coolness with the help of the titular Christine, a ’57 Plymouth Fury he rebuilds from the ground up. As Christine is restored, so does Arnie reinvent himself- but not always for the better- think Jack in “The Shining.”
The cast is great, even if the “teenagers” are a bit old for their parts. In addition to Gordon, there’s John Stockwell (both he and Gordon went on to become respected directors in their own right), Harry Dean Stanton (“Repo Man”), Alexandra Paul (“Baywatch”), Kelly Preston (aka Mrs. John Travolta), and the unforgettably sleazy one-two punch that is Robert Prosky and Roberts Blossum. The level of talent involved here is what makes what is essentially a movie about a guy with a possessed car- or a guy possessed by his car, or whatever- into a genuinely suspenseful and riveting ride. The scene where a trashed Christine “rebuilds” herself is worth the price of admission alone, but the scenes where she gets her revenge are pretty sweet as well. Great old-school soundtrack, too.
In this adaption of the classic novella by King, writer/director Frank Darabont actually manages to outplay the master at his own game, coming up with a devastating ending that’s actually grimmer than the original story! Darabont is of course, best known as the director of previous King adaptations “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile,” often considered among the best, if not the best big-screen King adaptations ever.
He also masterminded the current cable-TV smash “The Walking Dead,” though he eventually was let go from that series, which is too bad. Fans of that show will find much to like here, to the point that it practically plays like a dry run for the show, only with monster creatures instead of zombies. The comparisons don’t end there, as many actors from that show also crop up here, including Laurie Holden, Melissa McBride, Jeffrey DeMunn, and Juan Gabriel Pareja.
Also on board are Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden, excellent as a Bible-thumper type; Andre Braugher (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine”), William Sadler (“Iron Man 3”), Samuel Witwer (“Being Human”), Toby Jones (“The Hunger Games”), and Thomas Jane (“Hung”). While I’ll allow that some of the performances are a bit overblown- looking at you, Jane- the atmosphere in the film is super oppressive and creepy, and the effects are pretty nifty.
The film is arguably even better, and closer to its 50’s creature feature inspirations, on DVD, where you can view the film in glorious black & white. This may well be the most underrated film on the list. On a side note: the book-on-tape adaptation of this, which was the first audiobook I ever heard, still holds up if you can find it, thanks to its “3D audio” approach, which is pretty unnerving to listen to, especially alone in the dark…if you dare.
Speaking of underrated, I never hear anyone talk about this one, possibly because it’s one of the more low-key King adaptations. Still, with talent like director Bryan Singer (“The Usual Suspects,” the first two “X-Men” movies- as well as the new one coming up next year) and “Gandalf” himself, Ian McKellan, onboard, it’s well worth a look. It revolves around a teenager (Brad Renfro), who discovers that his neighbor (McKellan) might be a Nazi war criminal hiding out. Rather than doing the right thing and reporting him to authorities, he opts to blackmail him into telling him graphic stories of his offenses, which adversely affect both of them, leading to unforeseen consequences on both ends.
As with the previous entry, the film changes the ending of the book, but I’m of mixed feelings as to whether it’s better or not. The original novella is much more violent and brutal, with a high body count, but by focusing in on the core relationship between the two main characters, the film may actually be more effective. If you can judge the film on its own merits, though, as I am here, it definitely warrants inclusion as a riveting and mesmerizing viewing experience that really makes an impression.
Also worth a mention is the cast, which includes Elias Koteas (“The Killing”), Joe Morton (“Eureka”), Joshua Jackson (“Fringe”), Bruce Davison (the first two “X-Men” movies) and a surprisingly dramatic and effective turn by “Friends”-vet David Schwimmer. That said, this is undeniably McKellan and Renfro’s show, and they both knock it out of the park. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s certainly a disturbing one, and that’s why it makes this list.
Granted, a completely faithful adaptation of what is arguably King’s most beloved novel was probably not in the cards, least of all on network TV, but all told, this manages to get a lot right, and is easily director Mick Garris’ best work, his fantastic show “Masters of Horror” notwithstanding. (Garris also did the notorious “The Shining” remake, plus “Desperation,” “Bag of Bones” and the guilty pleasure “Sleepwalkers.”)
Granted, the cast is a mixed bag, to be sure, but the ones the film gets right, it gets really right, like Gary Sinise as Stu, Matt Frewer as Trashcan Man, and especially Jamey Sheridan as the villainous Randall Flagg. Some of the rest is super dubious (i.e. Rob Lowe, Laura San Giacomo, Molly Ringwald), but it could have been worse. All in all, it’s a pretty satisfying effort, with some truly memorable sequences, and loads of fun cameos, including King himself, Kathy Bates, Ed Harris, directors John Landis and Sam Raimi; plus baller Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as “The Monster Shouter”!
Now that TV has come such a long way, I think an ongoing, limited run mini-series remake could be enormously effective, especially for someone like AMC, or even HBO or Showtime. I’d love to see “The Dark Tower” series go the same route, or even “The Talisman,” but with the right casting, this could be a slam dunk. As it stands, this is a pretty decent adaptation and nothing to be embarrassed by, warts and all, and a must-see for King completists.
Easily one of David Cronenberg’s more straight-forward and mainstream efforts- he’s much better known for such boundary-pushing fare like “Videodrome” and “The Naked Lunch”– this relatively faithful adaptation of one of King’s early novels is notable for featuring one of eccentric character Christopher Walken’s best performances, which he went on to spoof on a memorable “SNL” sketch. It also went on to inspire a television show of the same name, which served as a nice comeback vehicle for former “Brat Pack”-star Anthony Michael Hall.
It’s about a man who gets into a car wreck on the way home from a date and ends up in a coma, only to wake up three years later with psychic abilities. After helping some of the people at the hospital while he rehabilitates, he goes onto help a sheriff with a serial killer case before getting involved with a presidential candidate that may spell doom for the world if elected. The cast is uniformly excellent, including Martin Sheen as the nefarious Greg Stillson, Tom Skeritt as the sheriff, and Herbert Lom as the doctor who helps rehabilitate Walken’s character. Though one of King’s shorter efforts, the film nonetheless manages to stuff a remarkable amount of the storyline into a relatively stealth movie that clocks in well under two hours long. The end result is arguably one of Cronenberg’s finest efforts, and that’s saying something.
Okay, so this one is sort of silly at times, and pretty campy overall, but oh my God, do I love it. I dare say I could watch this one over and over more than any other film on this list, save maybe the top two. It’s by far the most fun King adaptation, and the cast is to die for. Plus, the director is horror legend George Romero (aka the “King of the Zombies”), who emulates the look of an old-school comic so closely and brilliantly he might just have missed his calling as a go-to guy for superhero adaptations, if this is any indication. It’s kind of like a Dario Argento film on LSD, what with all the primary colors and stylized ultra-violence.
I mean, come on: who doesn’t want to watch a film in which King himself plays a boozy country bumpkin that turns into a living weed? Or Ed Harris busting out some of the dopest dance moves EVAH to a hilariously bad disco track? Or comedy legend Leslie Nielsen (“Airplane”) as a rich wackadoo that buries the adulterous Ted Danson (“CSI”) in the sand just as the tide comes in? Or the fabulous bitch-on-wheels character played by horror legend Adrienne Barbeau get hers? Or see a rich 1%-er type get munched alive by killer cockroaches? (Okay, that last one is pretty gross, admittedly.)
All this plus Tom “Thrill Me” Atkins (“The Fog”) as a dad who gets a bad case of the voodoo blues courtesy of King’s own son, Joe; F/X artist Tom Savini as a garbage man; a saucy turn by Viveca Lindfors as dotty old Aunt Bedelia; and Hal Holbrook and Fritz Weaver as memorable friends who get more than they bargained for with the monster in a giant crate that ranks among the coolest ever committed to celluloid. It’s wonderfully over-the-top, and completely demented and just fantastic.
I suppose I have King to thank for never looking quite the same way at a Saint Bernard ever again. In this spot-on adaptation of one of King’s most nail-biting novels, the family dog gets rabies and goes quite literally bat-sh*t crazy, taking out anyone that gets in its path. The centerpiece of the film is undeniably the last section where “ET”-mom Dee Wallace and her son face off against the titular terror, spending most of the film trapped helplessly in her car. Harrowing doesn’t even begin to describe it. Though director Lewis Teague changes the ending, you can hardly blame him, as to end on such a bum note would have truly been cruel and inhumane punishment.
As it stands, few movies take me right back to being scared out of my wits as a kid than this one. The scene early on, with little Tad (Danny Pintauro, of “Who’s the Boss?”) terrified of monsters in the dark perfectly captures the feeling of being frightened by that sinister something in the closet or under the bed like no other film before or since. The cinematography in that scene is the best, and so is the expertly-shot aforementioned final sequence, which remains one of the most intense viewing experiences you’ll ever have. After this one, you’ll definitely want to keep an eye on the family dog.
For better or worse, this is the role that current “American Horror Story”-star Kathy Bates will forever be associated with, thanks to her Oscar-winning turn as the psychopathic Annie Wilkes, the self-proclaimed “#1 fan” of writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan, in one of his best performances as well). This is pretty much every writer’s worst nightmare, being held captive and forced to write stuff you could care less about, all the while being terrorized by an insane person.
As ever, the screenwriter changed some of the book’s most violent and horrific moments, yet the “hobbling” sequence remains a tough watch that is arguably made worse than the book despite being less graphic. Whatever the case, it’s a reasonably faithful adaptation otherwise, and easily one of the best, period- horror or otherwise- and quite possibly Rob Reiner’s finest work to date, though I loves me some “Spinal Tap” and “The Princess Bride.”
Not content to sour people on dogs forever, King moved on to cats with this one, which, unlike “Cujo,” isn’t afraid to go where other horror movies fear to tread. (Spoiler alert for the rest of the paragraph!) I’ll never forget seeing this as a kid the first time, and going: “They killed a kid? Can they do that?” They can, and they do, and boy oh boy is that kid creepy when he inevitably comes back. Yep, hold onto your hats, folks, we’re talking zombie toddlers! Eep!
This one is just armed to the teeth with nightmare fuel. Honestly, the stuff with the cat is minor league compared with the bits with super-creepy Zelda, that freaky phone call with Gage, and- well, Gage in general, really. Former “Munster”-man Fred Gwynne plays next-door neighbor Judd, while sci-fi faves Dale Midkiff (“Time Trax”) and Denise Crosby (“Star Trek: The Next Generation”) play the parents of the unfortunately-fated Gage (Miko Hughes). King also crops up as a preacher, appropriately enough. Some of you may know the character Judd from the memorable spoofs “South Park” did on a few episodes, notably “Marjorine.”
Easily the best of the mini-series versions of King’s work, and one of the best examples of the approach ever, “Salem’s Lot” does one of King’s more underrated novels justice and then some. If you’re a real fan of King, you’ll definitely want to pick up the full version, which clocks in at 183 minutes, not the heavily-edited “movie” version that clocks in at 112 minutes. That said, the two versions are both worth seeing, as they feature different scenes and varying musical scores that are exclusive to each version. The original version is the more faithful one, though, so if you must choose one, go with it.
This is pretty hardcore stuff for television at the time, including some really spooktacular scenes, and a decidedly non-sparkly approach to its vampires. Some find the main vampire Kurt Barlow, played memorably by Reggie Nalder, to be one of the most terrifying ever to be committed to celluloid, but for my money, few things are more bone-chilling than that vampire kid that pays a visit to his brother in one of the film’s most memorable scenes. It was later spoofed on “The Simpsons” and served as a point of inspiration to “The Lost Boys,” “Fright Night” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” The director is horror legend Tobe Hooper, of “Poltergeist” and “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” infamy, which doesn’t exactly hurt matters.
Granted, the violence, as per usual, is toned down in this version, but it still works like gangbusters, proving that sometimes, less really is more. The cast is pretty solid, too, including James Mason (“Lolita”), David Soul (“Starsky & Hutch”), Bonnie Bedelia (TV’s “Parenthood”) frequent Clint Eastwood co-star Geoffrey Lewis, and frequent Christopher Guest-collaborator Fred Willard in a rare non-comedic role. The gold standard by which all King television adaptations will forever be judged, rarely favorably.
The first adaption of King’s work to make it to the big screen, and King’s first published novel as well, “Carrie” also remains one of the best. That’s mainly due to the über-stylish direction from the legendary Brian De Palma (“The Untouchables,” “Scarface”), which, like “Creepshow,” takes some of its visual cues from Italian maestro Dario Argento (notably “Suspiria”), as well as borrowing more than a few things from the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, notably in the form of the score by Pino Donaggio, which adopts many of the same musical “stings” as the classic “Psycho.” It also features its own notorious shower scene, which is definitely not for the kiddies. I can only imagine how that sequence is shown on television, but it must make for a tough edit, given that it runs the length of the opening credits!
The cast is aces, featuring loads of familiar faces, including Sissy Spacek in the lead role and the unforgettable Piper Laurie as her mother, both garnering the rare Oscar nominations for a horror film. Also cropping up are John Travolta (!), Nancy Allen (who basically defined the “mean girl” for her generation here and went on to marry De Palma), PJ Soles (pre-“Halloween”), Amy Irving (who went on to star in De Palma’s “The Fury” in a very “Carrie”-esque role), Edie McClurg (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”), Betty Buckley (“Oz”), and William Katt (who later appeared in “Jawbreaker,” which featured a “Carrie” homage).
Granted, some of the 70’s trapping are wildly dated, but you won’t care during the film’s many memorable scenes, especially the epic prom sequence, the face-offs between Carrie and her mother, and the famed ending, which was shot backwards for maximum trippy effect. Honestly, though, I wouldn’t change a thing, and I say that having seen the most recent take, the review of which can be found here. It doesn’t get much better than this, in any genre, except for…
King himself may hate it, and it may veer wildly from the novel on the whole, but few films have the re-watchability factor of this one, as evidenced by the obsessive conspiracy theories that have risen up around it, detailed in more internet sites and YouTube videos than you can shake a stick at, not to mention a documentary, “Room 237.”
Yes, Jack Nicholson flies off the handle so fast you barely have time to settle in, but there’s no denying the hypnotic hold this one can have on a viewer to this day. It’s incredibly stylish and the cinematography, by John Alcott, is near-unparalleled for a horror film. It’s also chockfull of one memorable scene after another, and has inspired/been ripped-off by countless horror movies. It’s basically the ghost story/haunted house film by which all others since will forever be judged.
It’s also eminently quotable, and some of the scenes are unforgettable once you’ve seen them, notably the notorious “Room 237” scene, the bits with the two little girls, and, um, whatever’s going on in the picture above. Granted, it’s also one of the least faithful adaptations of King’s material ever, which makes it a bit of an incongruous choice for number one, I suppose, but come on, what would you have chosen? It just doesn’t get much better than this, horror-movie wise.
Well, that about does it. Hope you enjoyed the list, and I hope you’ll chime in with your own choices below in the comment section. Sweet dream, kiddies, and have a happy Halloween!