The best Stephen King movies … ranked!

With It Chapter Two out next month, plus the news that an adaptation of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is back on track, we count down the finest big-screen versions of King’s terrifying tales

20. Maximum Overdrive (1986)

Cujo arguably has more thrills. Apt Pupil certainly has more chills. But with his sole directorial effort, Stephen King – that great chronicler of retro Americana – somehow made the perfect drive-in movie: a silly, slapdash nightmare of murderous vehicles and appliances attacking hysterical patrons (including a bewildered Emilio Estevez) at a truck stop.

19. Secret Window (2004)

King gets arguably his prettiest screen surrogate in this slick, twisty thriller about a blocked writer (Johnny Depp) whose favoured lakeside retreat is interrupted by a vengeful rival (John Turturro) in a distinctive hat. The original novella – adapted and directed by the veteran scriptwriter David Koepp – perhaps reveals one of King’s own greatest fears: being accused of plagiarism.

18. Children of the Corn (1984)

A pagan cult of killer kids … Children of the Corn.
A pagan cult of killer kids … Children of the Corn. Photograph: Allstar/New World Pictures

Ban this sickle filth! King’s unsettling short story about a pagan cult of killer kids was originally published in Penthouse in 1977 and has so far inspired 10 screen adaptations. The atmospheric original – featuring a supremely creepy choral score and a young Linda Hamilton having a Midsommar moment – is the best of a mostly rotten crop.

17. Creepshow (1982)

This exuberant horror anthology, styled as a disreputable comic, features five tales of cosmic comeuppance scripted by King and directed by the zombie overlord George A Romero. One of its greatest delights is King’s extended cameo as an unlucky hillbilly transmogrifying into a mossy mutant, an appropriate metaphor for his fecund imagination.

16. The Night Flier (1997)

Originally debuting on HBO before a negligible cinema release, this cheap chiller based on a King short story is worth tracking down for Miguel Ferrer’s ferocious performance. The RoboCop star plays a needlessly combative tabloid hack who takes to the skies to hunt for a bloodthirsty airborne serial killer.

15. Pet Sematary (2019)

Recent advances in creepy cat makeup … Pet Sematary.
Recent advances in creepy cat makeup … Pet Sematary. Photograph: Allstar/Paramount Pictures

Fur good or ill, this earthy adaptation of one of King’s most upsetting novels messes with audience’s memories of the previous 1989 movie. But the story of a young family attempting to reverse tragedy with the help of an unholy burial ground retains a gut-churning charge, and clearly benefits from recent advances in creepy cat makeup.

14. The Green Mile (1999)

A textured tearjerker … The Green Mile.
A textured tearjerker … The Green Mile. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros

After expanding King’s novella The Shawshank Redemption, the writer/director Frank Darabont went even bigger with another of the author’s old-timey prison tales, originally published in serial form. At a leisurely three hours, The Green Mile is a textured tearjerker that finds magical realism on death row in 1930s Louisiana, with prison guard Tom Hanks looking increasingly anguished as Michael Clarke Duncan’s gentle but doomed inmate symbolically absorbs the pain of his captors.

13. Dolores Claiborne (1995)

No ghouls or demons for a change, but a real-life monster still lurks at the heart of King’s 1992 bestseller, written as one continuous screed to mimic the testimony of its title character. Kathy Bates is terrific as the flinty carer suspected of murdering her well-off charge; the intervention of her estranged journalist daughter (Jennifer Jason Leigh) triggers flashbacks to their traumatic shared past. The caustic back-and-forth between mother and daughter anchors Taylor Hackford’s resonant drama, skilfully adapted for the screen by Tony Gilroy.

12. Christine (1983)

Blood and chrome: Christine is a sentient, supernatural 1958 Plymouth Fury with the power to turn her dweeby owner Keith Gordon into a pomaded dreamboat – plus a killer jealous streak. This bloody coming-of-age tale takes a while to shift into high gear, but the director, John Carpenter, crafts some memorable images from King’s slightly daft source material, notably a flaming Christine bearing down on a fleeing greaser on a lonely country road.

11. The Running Man (1987)

This enjoyably wham-bam sci-fi satire is an adaptation of a quickie King novel – written under his pseudonym Richard Bachman – that bins most of the plot except the juicy premise: in the near-future, a lethal, rigged TV manhunt distracts the masses while the elites live it up. Schwarzenegger is the freedom fighter who looks indomitable even in yellow spandex while real-life US gameshow host Richard Dawson brings some authentic smarm as the villain.

10. Gerald’s Game (2017)

Role-play goes awry … Gerald’s Game.
Role-play goes awry … Gerald’s Game. Photograph: Glen Wilson/Allstar/Intrepid Pictures/Netflix

Looking back, 2017 was a feast of Stephen: a cinematic King love-in with ballooning highs (the runaway success of It) and whoopee-cushion lows (the shrug that greeted would-be epic The Dark Tower). Amid those extremes, Gerald’s Game – one of two King movies released that year by Netflix – got a little lost in the shuffle. Essentially, it is 127 Hours with added Viagra: Carla Gugino is left handcuffed to a bed in a remote love nest after some role-play with her husband goes awry. The slap-and-tickle set-up swiftly becomes a claustrophobic life-or-death struggle, with the never-better Gugino digging deep through past trauma to find the means to survive.

9. The Mist (2007)

Writer/director Frank Darabont’s third (and most recent) King adaptation swaps the golden-hued past of The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption for something far more contemporary played out in shades of grey. Big-city artist Thomas Jane and his son are trapped in a small-town supermarket when an unearthly mist rolls in. If the fog is obscuring nightmarish tentacle-monsters outside, things are not much better within, where a microcosm of US society rapidly fractures into volatile tribal factions. The critical response was muted on release – perhaps because of Darabont’s revised ending to the 1980 novella, a wicked kicker that King openly admired – but it increasingly feels like a prescient modern fable.

8. It (2017)

One of the most successful horror films of all time … It, with Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise.
One of the most successful horror films of all time … It, with Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise. Photograph: Allstar/New Line Cinema

How to explain the runaway success of It, one of the most successful horror films of all time, making $700m worldwide? King’s bestselling 1,100-page whopper of a book and the 1990 TV mini-series helped elevate shape-shifting killer clown Pennywise into a potent cultural bogeyman. But the decision to chop the novel’s cross-cutting timelines into two discrete chunks probably helped, too. Argentinian director Andy Muschietti delivered a well-crafted ghost train of slick, disorientating shocks against an evocative 1980s backdrop. Now all he has to do is repeat the trick without the Stranger Things trappings for the looming sequel, Chapter Two.

7. 1408 (2007)

In this inventive chamber piece – originally a King audiobook short story – John Cusack plays a failed novelist turned paranormal debunker surveying supposedly haunted B&Bs. Lured to a grand old NYC hotel by a mysterious postcard, he insists on staying in accursed room 1408 despite grave warnings from the dapper manager, Samuel L Jackson. That Cusack’s wise-ass cynic will get rattled and unravel is a given. What is impressive is the visual panache that, with the logic of a dream, slowly turns an ordinary-looking room into a phantasmagorical apocalypse.

6. Stand By Me (1986)

“Do you guys wanna go see a dead body?” King’s novella about a hardscrabble young gang trying to kill time during the holidays by embarking on a questionable quest ended up being directed by Rob Reiner. The Spinal Tap man coaxed winning performances from his fresh-faced ensemble, notably River Phoenix’s soulful scrapper. Despite the occasional diversion into mass puking, the movie is infused with such heart and warmth that it has become a touchstone for almost every smalltown lazy-summer tale since. Reiner even wraps it all up in 90 minutes, adding to the sense of something ineffable gone too soon.

5. Misery (1990)

A tightly orchestrated battle of wills … Misery.
A tightly orchestrated battle of wills … Misery. Photograph: Allstar/Castle Rock Entertainment

Hammer time: Reiner took another rather less heartwarming shot at adapting King with this suspenseful thriller. James Caan is the mangled author who wakes up after a snowy car crash to find himself being nursed by Kathy Bates’s attentive fan who, despite her perky exterior, takes a rather dim view of his plans to kill off her favourite character. It is a tightly orchestrated battle of wills with one rightly infamous scene of anti-surgery. Bates deservedly won an Oscar, but Caan – usually Hollywood’s most capable bruiser – is great, too.

4. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

King’s original novella about a seemingly mild-mannered banker imprisoned in 1948 for a double murder was all about playing the long game. So it seems appropriate that it took a decade or so for Darabont’s well-appointed adaptation (evocatively shot by Roger Deakins) to creep up the IMDb rankings to reach the giddiest heights of all-time best film polls. The abuses that Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) endures in Shawshank Penitentiary over almost two decades seem all too real and relatable, but they also make his victories – one particularly operatic – seem all the sweeter.

3. The Shining (1980)

Stanley Kubrick’s poised and chilly adaptation of King’s third novel is literally a cult movie: the 2012 documentary Room 237 profiled the fans and theorists who have pored over its meticulous production design for clues to some higher truth. It is certainly the most heightened of slashers, hacking a route into our collective consciousness thanks to Jack Nicholson’s feral performance. For years, King apparently hated it, but has belatedly brought Stanley in from the cold: his 2013 novel Doctor Sleep is a sequel to both his 1977 novel and Kubrick’s version (with its own movie due this Halloween).

2. Carrie (1976)

De Palma’s bloody blowout … Carrie.
De Palma’s bloody blowout … Carrie. Photograph: Everett Collection/Rex Features

It didn’t take long for Hollywood to realise the prolific King was the equivalent of discovering a new oil field when it came to horror movies: his debut novel was in cinemas within two years of publication. Brian De Palma turned King’s tale of horrendous high-school bullying and psychokinetic wrath into something like a high-school heist movie, with mean girl Nancy Allen patiently plotting disproportionate revenge against Sissy Spacek’s browbeaten, willowy wallflower. Despite the 2013 remake, De Palma’s bloody blowout remains the definitive version.

1. The Dead Zone (1983)

Would you kill baby Hitler? The Dead Zone.
Would you kill baby Hitler? The Dead Zone. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

When Christopher Walken’s likable everyman Johnny Smith wakes up from a coma, the rest of the world – including his sweetheart – has moved on. All he has left is an increasingly frazzled hairstyle and the ability to predict the future through touch. Then an encounter with a rabble-rousing populist politician (Martin Sheen, a long way from The West Wing) fills Johnny’s noggin with a nightmare vision of the future president, and he goes to extreme lengths to prevent nuclear war. Built around Walken’s wistful performance, David Cronenberg’s thriller is patient, understated and – despite his surgical reputation – surprisingly warm-hearted, while also being a timeless examination of the age-old quandary: would you kill baby Hitler?


Graeme Virtue

The GuardianTramp

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