The 10 Best Stephen King Movies
10. Pet Sematary (1989)
An adorable nuclear family moves into a new house; everything falls apart. King himself wrote the screenplay for this adaptation of his bleak burial-ground domestic drama, and Mary Lambert’s unfussy direction lets the story build gradually, like a tall tale whispered over a campfire. Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby are an admirably regular everycouple, building a home and then demolished by grief. As their neighbor Jud Crandall, the great Fred Gwynne is every wily-old-fellow from a Stephen King story wrapped in one: Cheerful, conversational, tapped into the weird supernatural myth lingering in the forest, doomed. There’s something brute-force disturbing about Pet Sematary – dead kids, dead pets – and it all builds to one of King’s darkest endings. Released in 1989, so it was one of the great sleepover films of the ‘90s. —Darren Franich
9. "The Raft" segment from Creepshow 2 (1987)
The two Creepshow anthologies that King made with George Romero are full of ghoulish fun, though there are definitely hits and misses. The big hit: This adaptation of a Skeleton Crew short story, starring a gaggle of besieged-yet-still-horny coeds. The foursome – Rachel, Laverne, Randy, and freaking Deke – find a remote lake, with a raft floating in the middle. Only when they get to the raft do they realize they’ve been joined by a fifth participant: An all-conusming floating oil slick with a taste for human flesh. Director Michael Gornick doesn’t use too many flourishes, and the devouring-blob is a pre-digital cheapo monster, but the low-budget quality actually contributes to the tension. “The Raft” looks like a lame ‘80s TV show, giving the slow-building horrors a transgressive kick. A mini-masterpiece in under 11 minutes. – D.F.
8. The Running Man (1987)
Maybe the most underappreciated action throwdown from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s decade-long reign as the box office’s Austrian Oak, The Running Man is a surprisingly smart future-shock adaptation of one of King’s “Richard Bachman” novels. It’s also, sadly, a prescient commentary on the banality of reality TV and American idiocy in our current bread-and-circuses era. Directed by former Starsky and Hutch star Paul Michael Glaser (for those scoring at home, he was Starsky), the film pits a wrongly convicted Ahnuld against a gantlet of lethal comic-book style stalkers in a Most Dangeous Game-style run for his life. It sounds ridiculous, I know. But there’s also a too-close-for-comfort subtext coursing beneath that outrageously cartoonish premise that makes it slightly easier to buy. And if that isn’t enough for you, then, well, it also has one of the all-time great snake oil salesman doing its selling as the villain — former Family Feud kissing-bandit Richard Dawson. As the outrun-or-die TV show’s charismatic emcee, Damon Killian, Dawson oozes nefarious Cockney smarm. Is The Running Man a modern masterpiece? Not by a long shot. But it is a hell of a lot of fun. —Chris Nashawaty
7. Stand by Me (1986)
Sometimes lost in all of those volumes of white-knuckle horror prose is the fact that King is more than just creeping dread and gotcha scares. He’s also a master of nostalgia. Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me may be the clearest example of the author’s Proustian obsession with the smallest quotidian details of youth — the recollected smells, sights, and sounds of long-ago summer nights that we’re only able to share with our oldest (and first) friends. But yes, there’s also a dead body. Told in sun-dappled flashback, Stand By Me revolves around four childhood friends (beautifully played by River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton, Jerry O’Connell, and Corey Feldman) who, in 1959, set off to find that dead body. But really it’s about male bonding, the first taste of freedom, and how the most insignificant things (a catchy pop song, a campfire story about a pie-eating contest puke-athon, etc.) can sometimes feel like the only things worth caring about. —C.N.
6. Dolores Claiborne (1995)
Stephen King was raised by a single working-class mother after his father walked out on the family when the future author was 2 years old. And you don’t have to squint very hard to see that Dolores Claiborne is, in its customarily oblique way, a love letter to her. Kathy Bates, who five years earlier won an Oscar as King’s demented anti-heroine Annie Wilkes in Misery, stars as Dolores — a hardscrabble Maine housekeeper who hasn’t seen her estranged daughter Selena (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) in 15 years. Selena returns after her mother is suspected of a murder that mirrors the events surrounding the death of Selena’s mean drunk father (David Strathairn), which gets her wheels a-spinning. Director Taylor Hackford toggles between the past and present in a way that reminds you that sometimes in life, it’s hard to tell them apart. Dolores isn’t the standard King horror workout. Its horror is of the purely domestic variety. It’s also arguably the most earnestly feminist tale he’s ever written. —C.N.
5. Misery (1990)
In hindsight, the product of a kind of Stephen King supergroup. Director Rob Reiner had already directed Stand By Me (and named his production company after King’s fictional Castle Rock.) Star Kathy Bates would go on to be Dolores Claiborne; famed screenwriter William Goldman would return to King years later with Hearts in Atlantis and all-time crapsterpiece Dreamcatcher. Throw in James Caan, one of cinema’s toughest manly men, and trap him in a bed for the whole movie: Now watch the sparks fly! Bates became an instant icon as Annie Wilkes, the sweetheart nurse and number-one-fan with a black-hole-sized dark side. There’s an almost Off-Broadway quality to the simplicity of the setup – a man in bed, a woman who controls his life – but that just adds to the sense of Misery’s specialness, the impossible-to-replicate discovery of Bates as a smiling force of down-home goodness and a Southern Gothic monstrosity. Watch out for that sledgehammer! – D.F.
4. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Although it was nominated for seven Oscars including Best Picture, Frank Darabont’s beautiful adaptation of King’s 1982 novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption was greeted at the box office with cold shrugs and relative indifference. Since then, thanks to what feels like an infinite loop of cable airings, Darabont’s film has snowballed into the ultimate male weepie — a nakedly sentimental drama that guys can choke up watching and not feel guilty about afterward. Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman play Andy and Red — a pair of long-term convicts at an imposingly austere penitentiary who gradually become best friends despite Andy’s undying dream of freedom and Red’s suspicion that after so long behind bars, he might not know how to live on the outside. The performances in the film are first-rate — not just from the two stars, but also from smaller players like Clancy Brown as the sadistic guard Hadley, Bob Gunton as the ruthlessly corrupt warden, and James Whitmore as Brooks, a senior-citizen cautionary tale about the ways incarceration can break a man’s soul beyond repair. Shawshank has its naysayers who dismiss it as melodramatic hooey, but my tear ducts say otherwise. —C.N.
3. The Mist (2007)
Darabont’s the high priest of Stephen King adaptations, no question. After Shawshank, he produced The Green Mile, a spiritual sequel and an overextension of the earlier film: Another prison, another tragically innocent inmate, a three-hour running time. As a brazen act of self-rebellion, Darabont’s third King film is a cut-to-the-bone locked-room thriller. A thunderstorm practically levels a small Maine town. Seeking supplies, some townspeople visit the local supermarket. Nobody pays much attention to the onrushing mist – until it covers the town, until someone runs into the market covered in blood swearing there is something out there. A stacked cast of character actors play detailed variations of American archetypes: big-city lawyer, towny good ol’ boy, religious zealot, beleaguered assistant manager of a supermarket. Darabont’s vision is democratic enough to make every character feel real – and sociopathic enough to kill those characters on a dime. Some of the digital effects have aged poorly, and some of them are genuinely horrifying; the monsters in the mist are by turns recognizable and phantasmagorical, insectile and reptilean, and something more. In its own fierce way, The Mist is just as rewatchable as Shawshank. And the ending of this film (radically different from King’s original novella) it’s the brazen inverse of Shawshank’s sunny closing: Gunshots and screaming and the possibility that there can never be a final escape. – D.F.
2. Carrie (1976)
A harrowing coming-of-age story masquerading in horror movie drag, Brian De Palma’s masterpiece stars a 26-year-old Sissy Spacek as small-town outcast Carrie White — a sheltered, picked-on wallflower with a deranged religious zealot mother at home (Piper Laurie) and a telekinetic gift (or curse, depending on where you’re sitting) triggered by a rage she’s just beginning to grapple with. De Palma’s suspenseful, vise-tightening Rube Goldberg-meets-Alfred Hitchcock pig’s blood at the prom climax gets all the attention, but this sympathetic love letter to teenage misfits everywhere wouldn’t work without Spacek’s wide-eyed vulnerability and King’s deep understanding of the humiliations of adolescence and popularity that every teen knows all too well. The film’s final scare — a hand from the grave jolt that spilled countless popcorn boxes in the ‘70s — seals this classic as one of King’s (and De Palma’s) best and most enduring. And a word to the wise: Steer clear of the 2013 remake. —C.N.
1. The Shining (1980)
King vocally hates the movie, and wrote his own adaptation years later as a harsh corrective. And the key alterations that Stanley Kubrick made to King’s book bring up a host of interesting questions about the story: What is meant to be supernatural, what is cabin fever, what is the point of pointless characters, and just what is this story about, really? The latter question has perpetrated a whole generation of wild Shining theories – it’s a parable for how the Minotaur faked the moon landing! But there’s a reason why the film has inspired so much analysis and terror. Kubrick filmed for practically a year, and the work’s onscreen: Every shot feels meticulously conceived, every hallway of the Overlook seems to contain mysteries, every standalone scene and crash of the crazymaking soundtrack is an invitation to madness.
As Jack Torrance, Jack Nicholson gives a madman performance that is secretly subtle. You remember his murderous smile – but there’s a genuine middle-aged desperation motivating Jack’s descent. You feel how badly he wants to be a good providing father – and his solution is to bring his family to the end of the Earth so they can spend a winter all alone. The unjustly condemned Shelley Duvall shades her screeching performance with the misery of a woman who’s lived too long in a toxic relationship; the most heartbreaking part of the movie comes early, when she stutteringly explains why her husband dislocating her son’s shoulder was ultimately a positive step forward for the family. And Danny Lloyd has one of the great child faces in cinema: Curious, confused, utterly freaked out.
Kubrick’s The Shining cuts to the core of one of the chief overarching theme-stories that fascinates King: The demise of the American family from within, the lingering sense that what looks pleasant on the outside is corroding from within. Few hotels have ever looked better than the Overlook. But there’s blood in the elevator, and dead girls in the corridor, and a careless caretaker who ultimately decides that it’s easier to kill your family than defeat writer’s block. – D.F.