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. Try this: next time you’re at your grandparents’ house and they are regaling you with the saga of the latest bunion on their foot, wait for them to finish and then say, “Jeez, Grams, that was more horrifying than a Stephen King story,” and see if they don’t immediately know what you mean by that.
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)
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. Or, rather, an instrument of a deranged will, perhaps. 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, 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)
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 screeplays for The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Green Mile (1999) that established him as the Go-To guy for King movies, maybe when Rob Reiner was unavailable. But what Darabont really wanted to do was adapt and direct King's short story, "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.
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. 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)
As much as I hate Brian de Palma, even a broken clock is right twice a day. Hailed as the Heir Apparent to Hitchcock, his suspense movies that he is so famous for have a tendency to be “nothing new” and after a while, he started believing his own press and stopped trying. Later. There were still flashes of inspiration before his Rockstar persona set in. Exhibit A is the cult classic Phantom of the Paradise (1975), featuring so much nutty goodness, it’s like a Snickers bar. Exhibit B is Carrie, which is ironically 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.
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 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. It’s worth noting that while the trend toward “realism” in film (whatever that meant) was still in effect—and we weren’t quite ready for post-modernism, because film tends to lag behind art and literature—de Palma goes the other way with Carrie and lifts liberally from the Hitchcock playbook, as he has been wont to do his entire career. The best student in the class isn’t always the smartest; they just know how to parrot back the lesson to the teacher.
The movie is well-served by de Palma’s thievery, however—and let’s not call it “an homage,” okay? If we’re going to label it more gently and less accusatory, let’s call it a “crutch” instead. Carrie’s world is one of horrible mean girl tormentors and clearly psychotic mothers, 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.
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, well, he had a 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 (2017)
I hate 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? Every stupid-ass word of that contractual obligation novel. And I still think IT is the apex of Stephen King as 800-lb gorilla; the guy no one wants to edit because he’s All-Caps Stephen King Full-Stop and you are not. There are a number of really good storytellers that this happens to (looks sideways at Neil Gaiman), but there was a period for King when his books were in the dumper. IT lead that charge to mediocrity and what-the-fuckness. And before you say, “What about the Made-for-TV mini-series starring our favorite actor Tim Curry?” I want you to read that sentence and see if you can find the five words I most stridently object to. I’ll give you a hint: it’s not “Our Favorite Actor Tim Curry.” If you were actually scared by the TV movie, it’s because you were little kid. I was seventeen when the book came out and I gave my copy away because I didn’t want it on my shelf.
As a result of a bad book and a mediocre TV mini-series, I had zero expectations for this movie. Zero. But a funny thing happened: my movie theater was filled to capacity in September, during high school football season in Texas, and they were here to see this movie. More than that, they were coming out of the film visibly shaken. Some parents brought their middle school age kids (“they’ve seen it all before already,” was the most commonly-uttered reason I was given) and more than one of those same kids came out of the theater after a particularly scary scene, either in tears or in a full-blown panic attack. Well, that alone was worth checking the movie out. And I’m glad I did.
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.
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. 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. Even if the sequel (the second half of the book) tanks, this first film will stand alone as an exceptional horror romp.