10. The Dead Zone (1983)
It’s very surprising that Cronenberg never made another King movie, considering he acquitted himself quite well to this narrative, as it fits in with his never-ending interests in body horror. A teacher gets into a car wreck, falls into a coma, wakes up years later with an ability to touch people and see the death of a loved one/that person’s death. But that power takes a toll.
This is a movie that has been brought up a lot in the last few years as the political side of this story, about an evil man running for president, which has been a touchstone for the insanity running in DC these days. It’s a movie that has aged well. It was also the first time that Cronenberg showed he could handle real emotion, as he had been a very clinical genre filmmaker up to that point.
There was a detachment, a sterility to his work. This didn’t hamper the movies, but there was a definite remove from the work. But here, he really gets to the tragedy of Johnny Smith. That this is a power that would do real harm to a soul, seeing the worst moments in people’s lives as if he was experiencing it himself. By the time we get to martyrdom ending where Johnny tries to save the world from evil politician Greg Stillson, we almost feel relieved that Johnny’s pain is over.
This is maybe the most purely sad movie on the list. One wishes that Cronenberg would maybe take another stab at King’s work, especially as he has seemingly moved past his genre-leaning days and can maybe take a stab at something more “adult” that still tickles his fancy in the way that “A History of Violence” did. Because this is a masterwork from a master, going to another master to meld voices and create something special. This is very Cronenberg and still very much King. The balance is met perfectly and it’s no surprise this movie is so high up on the list.
9. Christine (1983)
We are very lucky that Carpenter was already in the process of making this movie before “The Thing” was crushed at the box office, as it couldn’t be taken away from him the way “Firestarter” was. If “Firestarter” was even half as good as this movie, it would be higher up on the list than it is. Because Carpenter delivered something really special here.
Like many of the best movies on this list, it has a master filmmaker melding their style with Kings. And from this time period, there was arguably no better filmmaker than Carpenter. He was on fire, even if the movies themselves were underappreciated in their time. This one falls into that category too, as people didn’t think Carpenter was coasting. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth, as this is not an easy King book to adapt.
The killer car movie is one that could have been very chintzy and laughable. But through sheer force of will and Carpenter’s immense ease with telling a story, he makes it work. There was no better shooter of film, capturing images in the most iconic way of this time, and he knew what to do with the car. The image of the car aflame as it chases down a bully is one of the many striking images in Carpenter’s career. And he shoots it all matter-of-factly.
There’s no sense of him laughing at the material or winking at the crowd. This is serious business for him. Telling the story of a bullied kid being given the power to be the bully and getting drunk with the power is a timeless story, and one that still is sadly relevant in the age of incels, MRAs and other low-class men decrying the state of a world that isn’t easy for them.
Carpenter gets King’s voice through, but he also gets his cynicism in as well. This is a sad story and Carpenter knows it. Seeing a kid succumb to the temptations is just the way of the world to Carpenter. This is a great movie and may qualify as the most underrated Carpenter movie. If it wasn’t for the above entry, it would be the most underrated King movie. But Taylor Hackford swoops in to helm the movie with that distinction.
8. Dolores Claiborne (1995)
This is a movie that deals with some immensely tricky subject matter, as it ultimately is one that hinges on the reveal that our main character’s motivation for killing her husband was that the man was raping their daughter. Even for King, this is some seriously dark subject matter.
With a less than deft touch, this could have been a tactless and gross movie that was unnecessarily rough to watch. But Hackford is a better filmmaker than that, and he manages to get the story across without pulling punches but without reveling in the darkness within. It’s not ambiguous but it’s not in your face.
We get King’s Maine world brought to life perfectly. We get two monster performances from Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh as a mother and daughter with a complicated relationship that starts to heal over the course of this story, as the past comes into focus as a means to clarify the present.
This is a movie that packs a wallop, but in a sneaky way. You don’t expect it to have such an emotional power when it begins. You expect a well-done King procedural about what seems like a murder, but what comes to be is a movie about the power of women in the face of toxic masculinity.
What’s kind of fun is that the book has a tie-in to another book of King’s, which most people never assumed would be done as that kind of stuff didn’t happen back in the 90s. But in the year of our lord 2017, that other book was adapted and the tie-in is still there.
The climactic eclipse of this story ties into another movie higher up here, and it was one of the joys of watching that movie, knowing that the events of “Dolores Claiborne” happened in that world. That this story isn’t forgotten to the sands of time. This movie should be held in much higher esteem than it currently is, as it’s seemingly forgotten. This movie is a masterpiece and this fact should be shouted from the tallest location nearest you.
7. It (2017)
Back in ye olden days of the 90s, a miniseries was made of this King opus. This is arguably one of King’s best books and its fans are very protective of it. So when the miniseries came out, it was a big event and people loved it. Sadly, time kept passing and time was kind to the miniseries. Other than the iconic work of Tim Curry as dat boi Pennywise, the movie is a bland and toothless mess.
For people unwilling to shut their minds off to nostalgia, a proper redo of the “It” story has been a dream. There was the assumption was that an HBO or other adult-oriented TV show creator would do so, but Warner Bros took a risk and made a close to two-and-a-half hour hard R horror movie based on the book. But an even bigger risk was that they only did half of the story, the half focusing on the children. That in and of itself posed a storytelling challenge, as the book jumped between time periods, one jump informing the next.
But Andy Muschietti handled the challenge like a damn champ and killed it like it was some dumb kid assuming a clown in a sewer was friend material. What he smartly does is keep us in the kids’ POV, so we don’t get all the answers. Things are still very murky by the end when they assume they beat Pennywise. There’s a lot of logic jumps on their part and some slight ideas on how powerful Pennywise is or how far back his reign of terror reaches.
All the darkness that Pennywise has seeped into this town’s soul is on the edges of the frames, something they subconsciously know is there but can’t really understand. All the knowledge of the evil they’re really dealing with is something they’re gonna have to reckon with when they return to Derry as adults.
This is a gorgeous movie that really gets the sickly nostalgic sensibility on screen. The violence is not held back, as this clown does not clown around when it comes to munching on the kiddies. The movie is a thrill ride of scares, like a roller coaster where there is no upside-down parts but parts where you fear for your soul at the hands of an interdimensional beast that feeds on fear.
This plays like the Conjuring movies, spookable movies that rock your socks off every five minutes or so with a masterfully crafted set piece. They may have changed a good deal of the events of the book, but the story is still essentially the same. The feel is right and the overall piece is basically the same. You can tell this movie was a success because right up until its release, no one assumed that Bill Skarsgard would be able to match up to Curry as our favorite clown. But now he is right up there with him in terms of horror movie iconography.
6. The Mist (2007)
Darabont returned to cinemas after a long hiatus with another King work, and it’s currently the last movie he’s made. He took a brief sojourn into TV by starting “The Walking Dead” before being fired and suing the pants off of AMC, and then attempting to make an old school noir series on TNT with Jon Bernthal called “Mob City.”
So far, no signs that he’s gonna be back anytime soon. So we have to be ok with this as his most recent filmic work, and that’s pretty okay, all things considered. Because this is one hell of a movie, divorced from his prestige pic days with his first three films, going for a leaner and meaner genre outing that reminds us all he made his bones as a genre screenwriter in the 80s.
He took a King novella about monsters in a fog and made his own 50’s style monster movie about the divisions that form in human society when fear and paranoia rule the day. What follows is pretty much an accurate adaptation of the story, right up until the end. Because whereas King ends the book with our surviving characters on the road, unsure of what is ahead of them, Darabont continues. He continues until the gas runs out and the only options are slow death or gruesome death by monsters, or mercy killing by gun.
This ending is one of the most depressing, gut punch of an ending ever. It’s not a twist so much as a solid rebuke to those that give in to fear by delivering the most profound beating to it’s main character ever. I mean, Jesus Christ is this ending mean. Making Thomas Jane kill everyone in the car, including his son, to prevent them all from being eaten by monsters only to almost immediately be rescued by the Army is just next level. King himself says he wishes he wrote that ending, as it’s truly the perfect ending for this story.
Everything leading up the ending is great, showing how masterful Darabont can be at crafting popcorn horror entertainment that can make an audience squirm or squeal or cower and even cheer. How he executes the divisions that form in this situation is wonderful, making a statement about the world in this small-scale story. And his barbs at organized religion are potent as hell as Mrs. Carmody is an all-time horror movie villain.
The scares and the monsters are great, Darabont using the Lovecraftian-esque otherworldly horrors narrative fuel his imagination for nightmare fuel. This movie just gets right down to it and sucks us into this world and leaves us shook as hell by the end. It gets overlooked by other, more easily digestible popcorn horror movies, but there are not many better horror movies released in the first decade of the new millennium. It’s a truly masterful work.
5. Gerald’s Game (2017)
This movie made its debut at Fantastic Fest in 2017. This festival is one that’s filled to the brim with grisly horror movies, movies with imagery that is meant to test even the most well-worn soul. In a festival that included “Brawl on Cell Block 99” and “Revenge,” “Gerald’s Game” has a moment so horrific and gruesome that it broke those who were watching it at the festival. Which isn’t to say that this is a movie built entirely on gore moments. No, this is the only moment in the movie that would grace the pages of Fangoria back in the day. That scene only works because we care about Jessie. We want her to escape and we want her to survive, so we feel every moment of her basically skinning herself to escape those handcuffs.
For what the movie really is is a story that has long been considered one of King’s most unfilmable novels. It’s a story that focuses entirely on one woman locked in a room all by herself, slowly losing her marbles as she “talks” to people from her past and slowly learns how to overcome the trauma in her life that led her down the path she is at today. A path that makes her susceptible to the attention of horrible men. How would one make this narrative cinematic? Well, up-and-coming master of horror Mike Flanagan had an idea on how to do it, and Netflix gave him the tools and freedom necessary to do so, and holy hell did he do so.
This movie is something else. Carla Gugino gives an award-worthy performance as Jessie, the woman who has been sleepwalking through life and is shaken back to life by this ordeal. Bruce Greenwood does great work as well in what is a bit of a limited role as the titular Gerald, the man who uses Jessie as a tool. An abusive man. And then he dies quickly and Greenwood has to play the man that Jessie believes he is, as the movie pares things down and has Jessie’s subconscious portrayed by Gugino and Greenwood.
Jessie has to face herself and the men she allowed to hurt her. So we flashback to the moment in her youth that shaped her, and it’s in that eclipse that gives “Dolores Claiborne” its emotional wallop that this movie gets its emotional wallop, too. And the two movies are tied together by the molestation a young woman suffers at the hands of her father.
But whereas “Claiborne” is the moment when something is done about it during the eclipse, “Gerald’s Game” is the moment where the horror occurs. Both stories are about the young women being unable to deal with those horrors and compartmentalizing them until a tragedy forces them to reckon with them.
This is a masterful movie and one that shot to the top of the heap immediately. Some may have issues with the epilogue of the movie, but I don’t. It’s a fitting end to the story being told. We need to see Jessie in the aftermath of this story. We need her to confront another man she gave too much power, assuming this grave-robbing necrophiliac was some otherworldly being. But as we see in the end, he’s just another loser prone to outrageous acts to get himself off. Jessie is the strong one here. Like most women, she is stronger than the men that put her down. Because she survived.
4. Misery (1990)
George Romero and Frank Darabont are in the running for best King adapters. But there may be one other guy who is better than either of them, and it’s Rob Reiner. Reiner may be a terrible filmmaker these days, but there was a time when he went on one hell of a run, making classic after classic that have lasted to this very day. And in that run, he did two King movies. This was the second of the two, and it could be argued that it’s the better of the two. But for my money, it’s only slightly below his first outing and that’s only because the first one works so much better than it had any right to.
But this movie is no slouch. King wrote this story as, yet again, an allegory for his alcoholism. It’s also him reckoning with his fandom, as he kept feeling boxed in by his fans who simply wanted monster tales and were disinterested in his more personal fare. So Annie Wilkes, masterfully brought to life by Kathy Bates in her first crack at a King character, is a representation of both the worst of fandom and also his alcoholism. Because Annie is the thing that Paul Sheldon hates but needs. Paul Sheldon, played by James Caan in an out-of-character turn as a guy who isn’t a fisticuff throwing badass, is the King representative. Annie is the drink, just as she is the desire to write for the cheap seats.
King struggled greatly with his legacy, with his output. He wanted to be taken seriously, but he also knew he could make money easier by writing the simple stuff that the rabble wanted. So he put it all on the page, where two of his greatest fears tie him down and force him to give in to the temptation. It’s a tense, slow burn of a story that gradually reveals itself. Annie Wilkes is a terrifying villain because she is all too real. She comes off like a friend, but the facade slowly wears off and she is barely concealing how deranged she really is.
Even still, we can’t believe how far gone she is when she hobbles Caan (in the 1990 version of the “Gerald’s Game” degloving scene). We spend all this time with these people, and they really are people. So we feel the shock, the pain and the hopelessness. When Paul finally realizes all is lost and the only thing he can do is burn this cheap work and fight back against his addiction whether he lives or not, we get it. We are totally invested.
This movie is a timeless classic and one that lasts because of that humanity. Reiner truly understood how to get King’s voice on screen without staying too faithful, allowing changes to be made that would help make the piece more cinematic. And it worked. It was no surprise that he would kill it, as he had done so before.
3. Stand by Me (1986)
Reiner’s first swing at the plate in the King world and he nailed it. This is in my opinion better than “Misery” by a slight margin because it came about in a time when movies about kids coming of age was a big business, but he bested all of them. Mainly because he isn’t afraid to show that nostalgia for this time period may not be earned. He doesn’t pull away from the difficulties of life and he doesn’t build a narrative built on the phony promise that everything will be okay if you will it to be. Life has a way of taking things from you.
This is a coming-of-age tale that is really about these kids growing up and learning that life is rough. They thought life as kids was bad, but they now know that being a grown-up isn’t a cure-all. All of these kids’ ills are brought about by the trauma their parents faced and brought down upon them.
These kids learn that they can become copies of their parents, a cycle of trauma that won’t end. Or they can learn from their parent’s mistakes and try to break the chain. And even then, it may not work. Going on that journey to see a dead body gives them a sense of mortality that children don’t have. Learning about life and death changes them.
This stands apart from all the other kids movies of the time because it feels real and lived in and full of honest wisdom. King was never one to hold hands and give us an easy way out. This movie is fun and adventurous and gets the feeling of youth on screen perfectly. But it’s that hard-worn wisdom that elevates it and makes it a special movie.
2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Darabont made his debut with this King adaptation that wasn’t received with the biggest reception in the world at the time, but has become so popular in the decades since its release that it’s almost cool to dislike it. Some circles have tried to paint this movie as a bland Dad movie that isn’t sexy enough to like. Well, screw that pile of nonsense, because this movie is perfect.
It’s epic and small-scale at the same time. We spend decades with these characters and get to know them so well that we forget that they were in prison for life for horrible crimes, those moments when we remember all the more purposefully jarring. All done for the purpose of really showing how Andy Dufresne does not really belong. Although he does belong in his own way, as he is a man who has lost his way and his humanity. It was only when he was stripped of it by the world does he learn how to get it back and bring some sort of light to this horribly corrupt place.
The grace and humanity and filmmaking craft on display for a debut feature is stunning. And what is even more stunning is that this may be one of the only, if not tiny handful, of movies that are better than King’s source material. Darabont doesn’t narrow the scope of the timeline but it narrows the characters down, as King’s book kept adding characters and taking them away as time moved on. So there was no warden villain or a CO Hadley. Darabont gave the movie a center and a focus that was sorely needed.
The character work here is unmatched in any King movie. Most people don’t realize it’s a King movie because it isn’t horror, but when they find that out, they aren’t too surprised because it just palpably feels like King. And for a movie that is considered a Dad movie, there is a danger to it. They don’t hide the fact that Andy spends a good amount of time at the beginning of his stretch getting beaten and raped by a gang of prisoners before he proves his worth to Hadley and the warden.
And then they don’t hide how corrupt Hadley and the warden are, as overlong stretches in solitary and murder are tactics these men are really comfortable using. It’s this crushing sadness and systemic evil that makes Andy’s fateful escape all the more emotional. His journey is true and honest, and his escape is the only option that would make this movie watchable. It’s the light at the end of the tunnel.
There is a beauty in this movie and an honesty to the way the world works. But maybe, just maybe, through the sheer force of putting good out into the world, maybe we can find happiness and grace. You may have to crawl through a river of shit to find it, but happiness is out there. When Andy strips off his clothes and feels the rain on his skin as a free man, the movie has earned that catharsis. This movie is perfect.
1. Creepshow (1982)
Reiner and Darabont may have the better batting average as King’s cinematic translators, but Romero may have the single best King work out of the bunch, if only because it is so different than all the rest. An anthology that is a throwback to the old comic books of King’s/Romero’s youth that is just a fun ride.
This is as humorous as it is scary. And it is equally both. Neither of these guys were well known for their colorful sense of fun, but they did it here. Romero makes a big leap as a filmmaker on this one, getting a decent budget and nailing that old EC comics visual style and tone.
This feels like a movie with money. And each story is great in its own right, giving everyone who watches it their own particular favorite. Almost all anthologies have a weak link, and this one doesn’t. It only has a weak link in the sense that everyone has a different ranking, so there is no real consensus on the scale. The only one is that this movie bangs. It rocks out so hard. We should have been blessed with so many of these, but like many things in Romero’s career, it didn’t work out. But we should be happy to have a movie like this out there that shows Romero was one of the best.