Nearing the home stretch of this list, I’m aware that we’ve doubled up before: the weekend of October 6th we looked at George Romero’s first two Living Dead movies, and I got vocal about small but wonderful stretches of the otherwise troublesome Amusement and When a Stranger Calls in a catch-all installment.
There are dozens of artisans in the horror arena that deserve multi-movie showcases. Romero, of course. Bava or Argento could easily have been spotlighted for a full-length segment. This year, though, I’m awarding a spotlight slot to Stephen King: love him or hate him, it’s hard to argue that his active imagination has spurred some enterprising horror filmmakers to true greatness. It’s equally true, however, that his active imagination has spurred some enterprising horror filmmakers to the bottom of the barrel; so if you’re looking to mount an excellent Stephen King movie marathon, here’s a handy guide to take you through your evening. (Of course, there’s a lot of bottom of the barrel to wade through, so you’re gonna wanna skip Dreamcatcher. And Hearts in Atlantis. And every Children of the Corn movie, Thinner, The Tommyknockers, Needful Things, Maximum Overdrive, The Dark Half, the 2002 Carrie remake… well, I mean, they can’t all be winners.
You can start your evening with 1985’s underrated Silver Bullet, ably adapted from King’s under-read novella Cycle of the Werewolf. (Full disclosure: I’ve read a good amount of Stephen King material — he’s got ideas and drama to spare, if a rather stilted concept of dialogue — and I’ve never given Cycle it’s fair shot.) This one’s good entry-level material; you’re gonna want to start off with something easy before we get into the heavier stuff. It’s simple small-town-terrorized-by-a-werewolf stuff, but it’s done exceptionally well, imbued with deep autumn hues and shot through with an agreeable sense of crazy at the hands of both Gary Busey and the lycanthrope. One of these creatures terrifies the townspeople with feral eyes, ominous rows of gleaming teeth, and unpredictable bursts of manic energy; the other is a werewolf. King always has a way with a coming-of-age saga juiced up with curious goings-on — like It: Coming of Age With an Evil Clown, or Dreamcatcher: Coming of Age With Aliens Crawling Out of Your Butthole — and Silver Bullet manages to corral all the childhood innocence and terrifying werewolf kills one could possibly hope for.
From there, we move on to Frank Darabont’s 2007 shocker The Mist, adapted again from a King novella. It’s a film of ambition and ideas — once our main cast settles into the local market to wait out the mysterious creatures in the titular mist, it utilizes its cramped space and fear of the unknown to marry a creature-feature to a poignant, surprisingly sharp rumination on the toll of fear and mob mentality. (As one on-the-nose character puts it, “Put more than two of us in a room, we pick sides and start dreaming up ways to kill one another. Why do you think we invented politics and religion?”) The growing tension in the market is just as terrifying — maybe even less so — than the otherworldly creatures outside, and that’s another classic horror trope: the idea that our fundamentally insane species can’t even find safety with one another. Each scare, both internal and external, ramps up the tension almost imperceptibly, until we forget that we’re on edge; and then, with one final, ghastly swipe, Darabont viciously knocks all the dominoes off the table. The ending of The Mist has been debated endlessly in the five years since its release, many hardcore King fans chagrined at Darabont’s otherwise-faithful reading and the drastic direction it takes in its final frames; it serves the tale’s themes nicely, driving home the idea of fear leading us down unheard-of pathways, and as a bonus guts you to your very soul.
King himself reportedly approved of Darabont’s changes, which is more than we can say about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The author remains vocal to this day about his displeasure with Kubrick’s mannered, tense take on his most famous work; King himself tried to mount a more faithful miniseries based on the material in 1997, which failed from a.) casting Stephen Weber in a role initially played by Jack Nicholson in his prime, b.) loading the narrative with gobs of momentum-killing exposition, or c.) both. It’s Kubrick’s work that the horror fans remember, though: an unapologetically visual director and a notorious perfectionist (slash sociopath), Kubrick’s looming corridors, mind-melting hedge mazes, and mounting sense of danger add up to something unique, deeply disturbing, and classically terrifying. The sheer amount of visual touches in this beast: brief flashes of a gruesome massacre, tidal waves of blood crashing from open elevator doors, the sudden, heart-stopping axe murder in the final act… it’s difficult to assess what The Shining adds up to, exactly, but we know it’s terrifying.
Extra Credit: There are other King adaptations worth your time, of course. The best of those not mentioned just might be Brian De Palma’s 1976 rendition of Carrie, which builds to such a fantastic climax that the leisurely pace of the first two acts is wholly and utterly worth it; or it might be Rob Reiner’s Misery, which gets a lot of Shining-like mileage out of its snowy locale and features an unhinged Kathy Bates playing to the hilt.
More 31 Days of Halloween:
Day 1: May
Day 2: The Night of the Hunter
Day 3: The Descent
Day 4: Night of the Demons
Day 5: Them
Days 6 & 7: Night of the Living Dead // Dawn of the Dead
Day 8: Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
Day 9: A Tale of Two Sisters
Day 10: When a Stranger Calls // Amusement
Day 11: A Nightmare on Elm Street
Day 12: The Orphanage
Day 13: I Know What You Did Last Summer
Day 14: Dressed to Kill
Day 15: Deep Red
Day 16: Jeepers Creepers
Day 17: Black Sabbath
Day 18: V/H/S
Day 19: Sleepaway Camp