While he’ll probably never be regarded in the same literary echelon as H. P. Lovecraft or Edgar Allan Poe, you can’t deny Stephen King has commercialized horror on a scale that’s never been seen before him or since. He could take a sweatshirt and turn it into an instrument of evil that would have his readers walking around shivering in their T-shirts in the dead of winter.
That’s been King’s modus operandi since day one: finding horror in the everyday. A dreamy hotel, a girl going through puberty, the family pet—whether a road-braving feline or a lovable ol’ St. Bernard. Horror hits home the hardest when it takes an unassuming form.
With his overnight success, King’s stories were always destined for cinema. But apart from a few outliers, his books haven’t exactly leapt from the page to the screen with either the force or finesse of a telekinetically guided fireball. In fact, King’s filmography is chock-full of pretty unwatchable fare. For every Shawshank Redemption, you’ll find a dozen Lawnmower Men.
But when filmmakers get King right, they get him very right indeed.
In honor of the season for all things spooky, here is your guide to the top 10 film adaptations of Stephen King’s works of horror. Feel free to turn on your nightlight while you read — until King makes those evil too…
10. The Mist (2007)
King’s fondness for Lovecraft is no secret. He credits the stories of his fellow New Englander with giving him the desire to become a writer himself when he was a boy.
So it’s little surprise that elements from Lovecraft’s fiction have sometimes seeped into King’s own stories like tentacles slithering out from within a mysterious void in space. Of all the films made from King’s works, Frank Darabont’s adaptation of his 1980 novella, The Mist, brims the most fully with Lovecraftian influence.
Thomas Jane heads up an impressive cast playing a ragtag group of citizens in a small Maine community that hole up in a supermarket when an unearthly mist rolls over their town, bringing with it a horde of Lovecraftian beasties. Darabont slow-builds the horror, focusing just as much on the evil within the group as on that which lurks outside the glass sliding doors.
The film does spend a little too much time doting on religious zealotry and some of the iffier CGI and creature designs don’t always support the filmmakers’ ambitions, but you can’t deny its conclusion is one of the all-time great shockers.
The ending, which differs from the novella’s, earned praise from King himself who boldly proclaimed, “Anybody who reveals the last 5 minutes of this film should be hung from their neck until dead.” Though I’m sure we’re past the spoiler moratorium 15 years on, I’ll respect King’s wishes and let anyone who hasn’t seen the film yet experience it for themselves.
9. Pet Sematary (1989)
Considering the amount of fear his stories have struck within readers over the years, it really means something when King thinks himself to have gone too far with a concept.
Pet Sematary sat in a drawer for three years after he finished it, much like Joey putting his copy of The Shining in the freezer on Friends, and King had no intention of publishing the work until it became his easy way out of a contract he was ending with Doubleday. Even then, he had his reservations.
That didn’t stop him from personally writing the script for the film though (one of only a handful of times he would do so) or enjoying a cameo in it as a funeral priest.
Set in rural Maine along a truck-heavy thoroughfare that’s responsible for the local pet cemetery (and eventually the death of the 3-year-old son of the newly arrived Creed family), Pet Sematary is a pretty messed up story all around—relentlessly dark and arguably more twisted than anything else King has come up with. Grief compounds upon grief for the Creed family when King takes the idea of burial soil with warped powers of resurrection to its furthest, most horrifying extent.
When it came to putting the book on film, director Mary Lambert did a fantastic job of balancing the story’s overwhelming horror with its outlandishness. For how very grim the tale is, it’s also one of the most original and most bizarre of King’s works. In the end, that originality is what makes it so watchable.
Tasteful bits of macabre humor, like the Ramones song that comes in over the end credits, help the terror go down a little more smoothly. It may not be the most perfect film, but it’s one that can’t be missed when it comes to King adaptations.
8. Cujo (1983)
King’s first foray into the potential terror of family pets was also one of his few horror novels to not feature any link to the supernatural. That’s part of what makes Cujo such a compelling thriller — the thought that it could all really happen in a little town somewhere.
Though King isn’t dealing with ancient, apocalyptic, or otherworldly monstrosities, the simple story of a St. Bernard that comes down with rabies from a bat while frolicking in the open country is quite enough to make for riveting viewing.
Beautifully photographed by Jan de Bont, Cujo immerses you right in the heart of rural Maine and leaves you stranded there uncomfortably close to the hapless characters who cross paths with the rabid canine. It’s impressive to say the least how the filmmakers made the lurking presence of a St. Bernard every bit as terrifying as that shark that stalked Scheider and company in Jaws.
The cast all do a terrific job of embodying their characters, especially Dee Wallace and 6-year-old Danny Pintauro during the prolonged and highly visceral attack on the stalled car. It’s fully immersive filmmaking and a compelling watch all the way through.
7. It (2017 & 2019)
Spanning 27 years and more than 1,000 pages, It was always going to be a daunting story to put on screen. King himself expressed doubts when it came to making the TV miniseries in the early ’90s. But in what would become the dawn of a new renaissance of Stephen King adaptations, this fan favorite was recently brought to cinemas across two feature films.
As with the miniseries, the parts that deal with the adult cast in Chapter Two prove to be less interesting, leading to a faltering second half, but everything having to do with the Losers while they battle the omnipresent terror Pennywise in their youth is pure dynamite. The child cast, including a wise-cracking Finn Wolfhard fresh from the set of Stranger Things, all bond in a genuine manner and help bring the story’s heart front and center.
Opposite them, Bill Skarsgård slinks into the ruffle-collared outfit of Pennywise with frightening ease, pulling off the improbable feat of dispelling any comparisons you might be tempted to make with Tim Curry’s own take in the miniseries. He’s kooky, unpredictable, and about as human as you’d expect of an extraterrestrial lifeform that feeds on fear and that’s nearly as old as time itself.
That terrifying dull-eyed grin of his is worth the ticket to the carnival alone.
6. Christine (1983)
What could easily have become silly in the hands of a different director, the idea of a 1958 Plymouth Fury in toreador red that has a mind of its own and murders people from the inside and out, instead turned into another stone-cold classic from that legend of ’80s horror cinema, John Carpenter.
After dropping out of directing Universal’s Firestarter over budget disputes, Carpenter landed the task of adapting King’s tale of road rage gone supernaturally wrong for Columbia Pictures.
As all the best Carpenter films are, Christine is awash with atmosphere as palpable as that eerie green glow that comes in whenever the temperamental Plymouth decides somebody’s time is up. Shot in gloriously wide Panavision and backed by a brooding synth soundtrack, the slick technical expertise behind Carpenter’s film makes you forget all about the fact there’s no explanation for why the car wants to kill or just how the mechanics of its demonically self-reassembling powers work.
The car is evil. Simple as that.
And you’d better buckle up because Carpenter doesn’t take the foot off the pedal until the very last frame. *Cue “Bad to the Bone”*
5. Misery (1990)
Another of King’s thrillers without an ounce of the supernatural to be found, Misery is nevertheless just as terrifying of a story as any he’s committed to paperback.
There’s something that feels just a bit meta, just a little too close to home perhaps about this tale of a popular author who’s abducted and forced to rewrite his latest book by an insane fan who became a little too invested in his fiction. Tell us how you really feel about your fanbase, Stephen…
Misery is really a two-actor show, and under the careful craftsmanship of Rob Reiner (yes, he of The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally fame — go figure), Kathy Bates and James Caan hold you bound to the screen from one uncomfortable encounter to the next. Caan is convincing, but Bates really takes it all to another level with her wildly mood-swinging, “oh shucks” and “gee golly” spouting psychopath Annie Wilkes.
She’s the only actor to have won an Oscar for their performance in a Stephen King adaptation. Sometimes, you don’t need any special effects or fancy monster makeup to send chills down the spine. A bit of convincing homegrown psychopathy will do the trick just fine.
4. The Dead Zone (1983)
After John Carpenter, David Cronenberg just might be the second biggest name in 80s horror. Even so, his whole aesthetic at the time revolved around gruesome, outlandish, and heavily symbolic body horror. So Cronenberg was still kind of a peculiar choice for adapting King’s relatively spectacle-free tale of a man who wakes from a coma to find he has the gift (or curse) of envisioning future tragic events.
But Cronenberg and King turned out to be a match made in horror movie heaven.
In many ways, The Dead Zone feels like a dry run (and a very successful one) for Cronenberg’s The Fly. Both begin with a burgeoning romance that’s cut tragically short by one fateful decision the leading man makes and both end abruptly in horror and tragedy with a shot of the doomed couple departing forever in tears and bloodshed.
This isn’t an uplifting film, by the way. But it’s a great one, made that much greater by Christopher Walken at the height of his acting prowess.
This was before Walken went the way of Johnny Depp (or should that be the other way around?) and basically turned into a goofy version of himself on screen. This was back when Walken was really exercising his talent. He definitely makes you feel for poor Johnny post-coma and midburden of foresight.
For a story set in a small town, the stakes build nuclearly high, and Cronenberg ratchets the tension to its fullest. Recommended for a gloomy afternoon when you’re already feeling depressed and a little more won’t hurt.
3. Salem’s Lot (1979)
Alongside The Stand (which King says is just “too much story for a movie”), Salem’s Lot may be the only other of his major works from his prime to have never have been made into a theatrical film. But that’s probably a good thing since the three-hour runtime afforded to horror veteran Tobe Hooper in the 1979 TV miniseries he directed allowed him to bring to the small screen all the little subplots within King’s tale of vampires taking over Maine, making Salem’s Lot one of his most faithfully adapted stories.
Held back only by limitations on what he could do with gore, Hooper nevertheless crafted a wonderfully spooky atmosphere with tremendous attention to detail and more than a few chilling images that linger long after the credits have rolled.
Who could possibly forget the Glick boy floating at the window in all that fog or the shocking yellow eyes of the very Nosferatu-esque Kurt Barlow? Other adaptations may have Salem’s Lot beat in particular departments, but when it comes to faithfully translating the novel and doing a darned fine job of it, Hooper’s made-for-TV movie stands proud.
2. The Shining (1980)
King was definitely not the biggest fan of Kubrick’s take on The Shining and how far it strayed from his book, calling the film “a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside.”
While there is some validity to his criticisms, that hasn’t stopped the film from becoming one of the most revered horror pictures of all time. And as far as riffing on an idea goes, Kubrick’s version is pretty darn great.
Sure, Jack is playing his usual crazy self throughout and a lot of what made King’s book great in its own right doesn’t make its way to the screen, but Kubrick picked and chose from King’s ideas to develop his own densely layered, methodically paced, and captivatingly unsettling meditation on isolation, addiction, madness, trauma, the cyclical nature of violence, and a whole bunch else.
It seems there are endless theories as to what The Shining is really about. Kubrick had a way of constructing his films to allow for such detailed analysis and varying interpretation. For all we know, he intended his snowed-in thriller to mean a great many things at once. But the beautiful thing about The Shining is that if you want to you can settle in with a warm cup of cocoa and enjoy it purely for the fiercely tricycle-pedaling, manically door-splintering horror.
Unless you’re Stephen King. Then there’s always the ABC miniseries.
1. Carrie (1976)
While King may have accused The Shining of having no heart and no real arc for its protagonist, the same absolutely can not be said of the very first adaptation of one of his books — his very first book, in fact —Carrie.
For someone who would go on to pen multiple novels of more than 1,000 pages apiece, Carrie was a pretty modest beginning for King at just under 200 pages. But within its slim spine, the book explores the very human experiences, dilemmas, and passions of social outcast Carrie White, who’s bullied at school and oppressed at home and who just wants to be loved. It’s an achingly beautiful and tragic story — one in which the protagonist’s volatile telekinetic powers could almost be removed entirely up until the fiery, blood-soaked finale.
From the horror of Carrie’s first period to the magic of her first dance, director Brian De Palma does a masterful job of capturing every emotion in King’s earliest tale. The whole cast live up to it too, especially Sissy Spacek whose fragile tenderness and quiet yearning make poor, tortured Carrie an instantly sympathetic character and her climactic vengeance all the more shocking.