The 10 Best Stephen King Horror Movies
Stephen King is one of the biggest names in storytelling. There’s no arguing that. It’s just a simple fact. Since his debut, he’s been a big name and a unique presence in literature. He has had such a successful career with such an original voice, that he changed storytelling.
There’s narrative now that can be described as King-esque. And since his debut, his name has been an attractive one to filmmakers. His work has been adapted nonstop since his debut, with the first to be made, Carrie, being a bona fide classic that set an example for Hollywood that it was very possible to do it right. And while the man has made classics in many a genre, his most famous work is horror so it is only logical that the majority of works based on his stuff is horror. While there may be a lot, there isn’t actually much that is good.
Plenty of crap has been produced, half assed product just made to be sold with the intentions of making a quick buck that comes with having his name attached. But when the movies work, boy do they work. There’s a magic to King’s stories and when a movie gets that right, there’s nothing like it.
Many a talented director has taken a crack at his work and for the most part, they all feel of a piece. So with the massive success of It recently (now currently the highest grossing horror movie ever), ranking the horror movies made out of his work seems pretty damn fitting.
10. Secret Window
The only movie here that was based on a single short story and not a collection of them, this is a really solid little thriller that has seemingly fallen to the wayside since it’s release. Maybe because it’s a real small movie and doesn’t have a real Stephen King esque hook to it, where only he could have done.
Maybe because it’s just so small that most people forget that they saw it in the theaters. Or maybe it’s because Johnny Depp is the star and he made it in the midst of his shift into bland movie star, so any good work he made in this time period is detritus to his more mainstream work. Whatever the reason, this is a real good little thriller. Depp plays a writer (what else in a King story) who has isolated himself in a cabin to try and kickstart his inspiration.
While he’s up there, he is accosted by a mysterious stranger played by John Turturro. Turturro claims that Depp ripped off a story of his and he wants what’s his. What follows is a tense journey where Depp has to question what is really happening and prepare for the worst with a man that is obviously unhinged.
As mentioned before, there is no real obvious King hook in here that separates his work from everyone else. Minus a main character who is a writer, this feels like it could be written by anyone else in a post Twilight Zone world. So this one may feel a little more mercenary than most of the best adaptation of his work, the movie is a good one and doesn’t really overstep in it’s ambitions.
9. The Dark Half
George Romero returns to the world of King here with a movie based on a full length novel that could only be from the hand of King. A writer (again) played by Timothy Hutton is struggling. His art is more cerebral and less mainstream, so sales are not there. But he has a pen name for books that are trashier, stuff to pay the bills. As a publicity stunt when the truth comes out about the side work, he stages a funeral for that phony writer as a way to put that stuff to bed. But that name comes to life as an evil doppelgänger and wreaks havoc.
This is a weird little story that can only be King, as it is heavily biographical and it’s character details. Aside from the pen name coming to life, most of this stuff happened to him. As a movie, what we get is this weirdly metaphysical slasher movie with Timothy Hutton playing the killer and the final girl.
It gives Hutton a real good role to chew on, as he is able to play the physical manifestation of this writers dark side. He has to stand up to the darkness within his soul before it quite literally destroys everything around him. Romero does a damn good job at bringing the King world to life, that blue collar small town Maine life that is Kings stock and trade.
While it may not be as stylistically rich as their prior collaboration, that’s more due to the fact that this is about fitting within King’s work and not trying to fit into a more heightened comic book style. Romero has a much bigger budget than we are used to seeing him with, as his entire budget isn’t blown on zombie effects this time.
There’s a texture to this movie and it helps make the world feel like King, which is always the hardest element to nail. It’s a good little spookfest that may not be the instant classic that the rest of the movies on this list are, it doesn’t change the fact that this is a damn fine flick.
8. The Shining
This entry is a real weird beast. Because as an adaptation of King’s book, it is atrocious. This isn’t even a discussion about which is better, but a discussion about the actual story being told. King’s book was a very personal story about him grappling with his alocholism. Kubrick took that story and decided to tell a messy ghost story that doesn’t really work. The details don’t add up to really work.
Jack Nicholson is the King substitute, a writer going mad in this hotel and becomes a danger to his family. But the problem here is that Jack is obviously crazy from frame One. There’s no real descent here, no real tragedy. He isn’t grappling with anything, so it’s just a slow trudge until the obvious happens.
It also doesn’t help that his family is terribly cast. Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd are awful screen presences, so annoying that you can’t help but wish for them to get an axe to the dome. There’s an argument to be made that the movie isn’t supposed to add up and that it’s supposed to be ambiguous as to the truth of the situation. But that’s a bit nonsense since the movie has answers. It isn’t up in the air if there’s ghosts in this house. There’s many examples that prove there’s ghosts.
One: When Jack is locked in the fridge, the door just magically opens. There’s no way it could have happened if there wasn’t ghosts that did it. Two: It’s a movie without a fixed POV, so there’s no question if what we’re seeing is real or not, as Shelley and Danny see crazy shit too. Three: The movie ends with Jack magically thrust into a picture from decades ago. So there’s no question. It’s clearly a ghost story, but Kubrick missed the point of King’s book.
There’s a battle going on inside of Jack, his alcoholism making him a prime target of this haunted hotel, so his demons are made literal as he becomes a bigger threat to his family. He isn’t crazy at the start. Having Jack crazy from the word go (as his entire stack of papers he’s been working on since before moving into the hotel proves) just oversimplifies the story.
He just so happens to be a crazy man that ends up in this hotel and he is barely pushed into murderous madness. So as a King adaptation? Trash. Outright nonsense. But as a movie? It’s solid. Again it’s a bit messy and too long and miscast with 2/3rd’s of the family. But there is a tone, an uneasy tone that is hard to match.
The technical craft on display is, as usual with Kubrick, impeccable. And while Shelley and Danny are just terrible mistakes, Jack Nicholson is as imminently watchable as always. He’s a horrifying presence and elevates the whole movie around him. So as weird a beast as this movie is, it’s a good movie. Nothing great, as there’s too much within that doesn’t work. But on the whole it’s watchable and in possession of some amazing elements. Just don’t go in expecting a faithful King experience.
The book that kickstarted his career also became the first movie based on his work and the one that really set the template for how to do it. Brian De Palma came in to make his first big Hollywood production and he made a horror classic, a movie that manages to feel of a piece with King but also fit into his filmography as well.
The smartest move he made was to strip out all of the supplementary material from the book, all the news clippings and journal entries and the life. He stripped it down and got to the basics of the story, which is essentially a movie about bullying and the horrible effects of religious extremism.
Sissy Spacek does amazing work as our titular character. Her physicality makes her an otherworldly presence, which is perfect for the role of a girl that gets relentlessly bullied and then proves to be capable of inhuman feats. Piper Laurie excels as the religious nut that is Sissy’s mother, the real villain of the piece. These two are so great that they were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances.
A horror movie getting Oscar noms is crazy rare, so take that as a sign that this is a movie not to be trifled with. While on the face of it, Nancy Allen and John Travolta might seem to be the villains here, as they are the jerkoffs that drop pigs blood on Carrie and set off the whole Prom Night massacre. But Piper is. Her religious extremism has been a horrible weight on Carrie. It turned Carrie into a target, the bullies of high school smelling out the weakness like predators. But it also put the rage into Carrie. The rage that would explode outward and kill an entire gymnasium of people.
One just needs to look at the beginning of the movie and how unprepared Carrie is for her period, which is the inciting incident for the movie. Piper’s delirious fear of her daughter and of womanhood became a self fulfilling prophecy, as her draconian parenting style cause Carrie to become a killer. It’s a real nuanced look at religion. There may be dark things out there, but there has to be a better way to deal with it. Otherwise there is a risk at pushing those we love towards that darkness.
It’s a really strong adaptation of King’s work, feeling very much like that book thrust onto the screen. De Palma adds his own flourishes to it, stylistic flair that only he can do. Split diopter shots and long takes and voyeurism and the like. Just look at the opening, with that long take of the girls in the locker room. Or the Prom sequence. Pure De Palma that doesn’t dilute the purity of King. It was the first and it still stands strong in the canon. But hoo boy there is some real winners coming up.
6. The Dead Zone
King crafted a narrative hook with this book that is so strong that it is still referenced today. A book so perfectly executed and relevant that it’s political views are still timely today. It’s a real simple hook. High School Teacher Johnny Smith gets into a car wreck and wakes up from a coma 4 years later with a new ability. The ability to see the future. Or more specifically, the death related future of those he touches.
While this may seem like a great ability to have, it’s one that weighs on Johnny. It hurts him and takes a piece of his soul every time he uses it. It also physically manifests as a brain tumor. But he is thrust into a situation where he has to get involved. When he finds out that politician Greg Stillson is a piece of crap and is going to be the cause of nuclear war, Johnny has to take action.
So what we got here is a melancholy story, a bittersweet tragedy. This man dies young and loses everything in his life, but to a greater purpose. He saves the world. And no one realizes it. The idea of body modification makes this a prime story for David Cronenberg to tackle, out of all of King’s work this matchup is perfect. And Cronenberg really brings out the iciness of the story. The sadness inherent in the story.
There is nothing happy here. It’s all bittersweet and he captures that. Christopher Walken is great as Johnny Smith, really getting to the heart of this tragic figure. Much like Carrie, this feels like the book. It feels like King, but it never feels like for hire work by Cronenberg. This is definitely in his wheelhouse too. This is a classic piece of cinema and one that has aged quite well in this age of potential political annihilation.
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