As perhaps the world’s most preeminent writer of horror fiction, Stephen King’s works are adapted almost compulsively. With 60-odd novels and hundreds of short stories to his credit, there’s no shortage of material to pull from. It doesn’t hurt that his books hinge on ideas and rich characterization, aspects that make his yarns eminently adaptable; they also hinge a lot on expository dialogue and reams of internal monologue, things that don’t translate as easily to film.
Three weeks into CBS’s new miniseries Under the Dome — an adaptation of an excellent, sweeping King novel from 2009 — and it’s clear that we’ve got another King-based clunker on our hands. It’s a depressingly ordinary series, featuring some truly offensive dialogue and acting, and one that’s already starting to feel like a thirteen-week slog through a boggy marsh. It’s not the first Stephen King adaptation to bomb perfectly good material, and it won’t be the last; the silver lining here is that, despite missteps like Dome, we’ve been treated to some truly great cinematic material from King’s fertile imagination. In the first of a two-part Drews & Don’ts dissecting the best and worst of Stephen King on film, here are the best movies to have sprung from the pen of King.
Inspired by King novella “Secret Window, Secret Garden”, Secret Window hinges on a fairly obvious twist ending, and hit theaters around the time modern film’s fetish for rug-yanking twists reached a fever pitch. (The Shyamalan-ization of the horror and thriller universe, in other words. See also: Hide & Seek, Identity, seriously everything released around this time.) And yet, there’s so much to love in this underrated yarn; Johnny Depp, for one, shortly before committing to being a circus freak in every single film, turning in nicely understated work, and John Turturro as the menacing stranger who has him up nights. It’s devious, noirish, dark fun, and woefully underrated as a film.
9. Christine (1983)
Directed by maverick horror director John Carpenter – responsible for the greatest horror film of all time (Halloween) and several other nominees for the title (The Fog, The Thing, etc) – Christine is something of a trifle, but an unrelentingly fun one. As befits a story about a malevolent car, there’s camp to spare in this one, but Carpenter’s way with mood triggers some extra-credit atmosphere that lends the whole enterprise an eerie, throwback-horror feel.
8. 1408 (2007)
Speaking of throwback horror, 1408 stands as perhaps the last great bastion of the PG-13 horror movie. The rating is a death knell on the genre, because it’s the default rating that filmmakers dump utter dreck into; PG-13 either allows PG horror movies to be tarted up with idiocy instead of relying on atmosphere and scares, or allows R-rated movies to sand down the gore and mayhem to be presented to teenage audiences. And yet, 1408, which finds John Cusack experiencing paranormal activity in a haunted hotel room, is pretty pristine; Cusack, for one, is fantastic, the film largely hinging on his ability to captivate an audience, and cinematography and atmosphere dovetail into something legitimately tense and haunting. It’s also the rare horror movie with deep emotional stakes; when a hallucinating Cusack’s daughter crumbles to dust in his arms, the heartbreak is palpable and devastating.
7. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
By now, we’re all aware that Stephen King has more than horror up his sleeve; every time he writes something outside of the genre’s realm, people go “hey, did you know that Stephen King has more than horror up his sleeve?” (The answer: yes, yes we did. And we’ve known for a while, too.) One of King’s underrated skill sets remains nostalgia (see also: “The Body”, It, Hearts in Atlantis, Joyland, etc), and The Shawshank Redemption, as directed by Frank Darabont, manages to make prison a place of warm nostalgia and unspeakable horror almost simultaneously. More to the point: try finding someone who doesn’t like The Shawshank Redemption. The worst people will say is that it’s overrated (that’s kinda the camp I’m in, honestly – it’s assuredly great, don’t get me wrong, but there are hyperbolic people out there that proclaim it the best movie of all time, which it isn’t); nobody hates this movie. Nobody.
6. Apt Pupil (1998)
Springing from a novella in the Different Seasons collection – the very anthology that houses the novellas that Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption were built on – Apt Pupil isn’t a nostalgia trip, but a bitter reminiscence, performed to the hilt, and utterly hair-raising. It’s a bleak, startling affair, and if you’re only familiar with Ian McKellan’s work in big-budget franchise fare, his performance here as a former Nazi officer will chill the spine. Ditto Brad Renfro, one of the ’90s’ unheralded experts at reacting to adults doing terrible things. (See also: The Client.)
The first big-screen adaptation of a Stephen King novel – his first published novel, incidentally – and still one of the best. Horror vet Brian De Palma is at home in King’s haunting story about a telekinetic teenager, pulling out all the stops with a virtuosic, blood-bathed climax, utilizing his patented split-screen and slow-mo techniques to disarming effect; and then there’s Sissy Spacek, here a force of raw, maligned nature, taking one of the most horrifying (and satisfying) revenges ever committed to celluloid. Final shot’s a doozy, too; Stephen King movies are best when a great director has the reins, and De Palma in his prime was untouchable.
4. Creepshow (1982)
Directed by George Romero and written by Stephen King, two of the five vignettes in this E.C. Comics-inspired anthology were adapted from previously published King stories, which is all I need to count Creepshow for this list. Truth be told, I’m willing to bend any amount of rules to recognize the wonderful brilliance of Creepshow; it’s a quintessential Halloween movie, an R-rated nod to Twilight Zone and the aforementioned E.C. Comics, an homage to the quick and nasty days of short-form horror, with all the ironic eleventh-hour reversals and gruesome final shots that implies. More to the point, an endearingly terrible King himself steps in front of the camera for “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill”, and he plays a hick who refers to space ooze as “meteor shit”, so I’m not sure what else you need to convince you.
3. Misery (1990)
In his nonfiction volume Danse Macabre, Stephen King expertly breaks down the difference between terror, horror, and gross-out, the three tentpoles of horror fiction. Misery is a mixture of the first two — the film famously jettisons the dismembering of its invalid hero in favor of a less-gross, but somehow more disturbing alternative — and it’s a potent, unbearably suspenseful look at the nature of obsession and the indomitable survivor spirit. Consider that, a full year before Anthony Hopkins struck a blow for horror’s legitimacy by earning an Oscar statuette for portraying a doctor who eats people, Kathy Bates quietly struck Academy gold for playing a wild-eyed, semi-campy fan — her sweaty, go-for-broke performance gives the film its unpredictable, disquieting edge, and we’re all better for it. A hall-of-famer.
Frank Darabont — he of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, so he’s quite fond of adapting Stephen King material — is, secretly, a phenomenal horror director. You wouldn’t know it from his directorial credits; prior to The Mist, he had two non-horror Stephen King adaptations and one awful Jim Carrey drama to his credit, so there was no reason to assume The Mist was going to be as good as it was. And yet, there it was when the dust cleared: one of the nastiest, most terrifying, most cerebral modern horror movies to ever be put to celluloid. This is combustible cinema, excoriating, plump with pure dread, performed to the hilt by a cast of terrific character actors, devastating, satirical, terrifying. It might be the most perfect horror movie of the 2000s.
1. The Shining (1980)
Stephen King has gone on record as voicing his dissatisfaction with Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining.
Stephen King is, therefore, wrong.
Tune in next week when we discuss King adaptations that have gone awry. Until then, keep watching Under the Dome, or maybe feel free to watch something that isn’t terrible instead. Whatever suits your fancy!
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