Since Brian De Palma burned up the screen with Carrie in 1976, Hollywood has done its very best to translate what makes Stephen King’s work so special to film and TV. When it works, the results are spectacular. When it fails… oh, boy. It can be hard to pinpoint exactly what the key is to a successful adaptation, being completely faithful doesn’t always work and neither does going wildly off-book. But with film and TV’s love affair with all things King-related well and truly (Firestarter) rekindled, we’ve put together our list of the very best in King genre movies (which means no Stand By Me or Shawshank, don’t think we’d forgotten them!).
15. Silver Bullet (1985)
Director: Daniel Attias
Cast: Corey Haim, Gary Busey, Everett McGill
Seemingly forgotten outside of Stephen King fans who still love the VHS format, King adapted his own novella Cycle Of The Werewolf into this pleasingly nasty tale which just narrowly beat out Children Of The Corn for the number 15 spot. Corey Haim stars as a paraplegic young man convinced that the monster tearing through his small town isn’t a run of the mill serial killer but something that howls at the moon…It’s far from flawless but there’s an excellent roster of character actors (Gary Busey is especially good as Corey Haim’s Uncle Red), a great villain in Everett McGill’s clearly twitchy Reverend Lowe and a real sense that things aren’t going to end well.
14. Cujo (1983)
Director: Lewis Teague
Cast: Dee Wallace, Danny Pintauro, Ed Lauter
Ah, the big loveable St Bernard. Poor Cujo, all he wanted to do was chase rabbits and he ended up making an entire generation scared of giant puppers. Lewis Teague handles the tension superbly and Dee Wallace arguably does her very best work as the besieged mother. If the material around the central stand-off doesn’t work as well as it should, there’s no doubting the iconic nature of the titular pet who is all the more tragic for being a victim of circumstance/rabid bat.
13. Gerald’s Game (2017)
Director: Mike Flanagan
Cast: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Henry Thomas
For a long time Gerald’s Game was considered to be one of King’s infamously unfilmable stories and it took one of the horror genre’s brightest talents in Mike Flanagan (along with his regular co-writer Jeff Howard) to make it work. Carla Gugino gives a career-best performance as the woman handcuffed under her dead husband in a remote cabin who needs to do something drastic to escape a long and painful death. Flanagan handles the more difficult emotional material with typical sensitivity and it’s only the Moonlight Man material that flounders.
12. The Night Flier (1997)
Director: Mark Pavia
Cast: Miguel Ferrer, Julie Entwhistle, Dan Monahan
There’s always been a devoted cult following for this sadly unloved straight-to-video vampire story, which features a superbly sleazy performance from the late, great Miguel Ferrer as morality-free tabloid reporter Richard Dees investigating a string of mysterious murders at small air-fields. For much of its running time, it never quite lives up to Ferrer’s work, but it has the courage of its brutal convictions and the finale is unforgettable with one of the best vampiric mirror reveals of all time. Ever wondered what happens when a vampire uses the urinal? Surely that alone merits a Blu-ray restoration?
11. The Green Mile (1999)
Director: Frank Darabont
Cast: Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, David Morse
From one of the nastiest King adaptations to one of the most heartfelt. Frank Darabont and Stephen King have always been a good match, and his follow-up to Shawshank is an immensely powerful film. Tom Hanks is perfectly cast as the kind but firm Death Row guard who begins to believe that the mentally challenged man (Michael Clark Duncan) in his cells is not only innocent, but miraculous. At over three hours it’s a little self-indulgent but Darabont’s knows how to balance the treacle with moments of shocking violence and human cruelty. It’s a film about decency and humanity in a dark, dark place and an all-star cast (including Sam Rockwell, James Cromwell and Harry Dean Stanton) do tremendous work.
10. 1408 (2007)
Director: Mikael Håfström
Cast: John Cusack, Samuel L Jackson, Mary McCormack
It seems like this is finally getting the recognition it deserves, which is wonderful as this is a perfect example of how to adapt a King short story. As sceptical supernatural investigator Mike Enslin (John Cusack) experiences the full force of the haunted hotel room he’s now trapped in, director Mikael Håfström manages to keep things contained but unpredictable and genuinely scary in places, and Cusack hasn’t been this good since. Different releases with different endings have muddied the waters a bit but find the theatrical cut if you can.
9. Christine (1983)
Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul
Carpenter may have been taken off Firestarter when The Thing tanked but we’ll always have his take on King’s tale of one boy and his car, which has only grown in stature over the years. Keith Gordon excels as outsider Arnie Cunningham who develops an almost symbiotic relationship with his killer 1957 Plymouth Fury, as Carpenter takes a story that could have easily come across as ridiculous in less assured hands and turns it into a gripping horror of obsession. Great soundtrack, too.
8. Creepshow (1982)
Director: George A Romero
Cast: Hal Holbrook, Leslie Nielsen, Adrienne Barbeau
It always feels like we never had enough King-Romero collaborations (not for lack of trying, they discussed Salem’s Lot and The Stand among others), but what a treat Creepshow is. The pair would re-team for The Dark Half but this is a perfect blend of sensibilities and their shared interest in the ghoulish, outrageous fun of classic horror comics. It’s remarkably ahead of its time stylistically as it pays homage to different eras and formats, and manages to be both delightfully goofy and surprisingly horrible at the same time. Leslie Nielsen teaching Ted Danson a watery lesson, Hal Holbrook deciding whether or not he hates his wife enough to feed her to a monster in a crate, EG Marshall getting a comeuppance for his horrible nature courtesy of a legion of cockroaches…and, of course, there’s King himself as Jordy Verrill, the lunkhead who pays a mossy price for touching meteor shit.
7. Pet Sematary (1989)
Director: Mary Harron
Cast: Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby, Fred Gwynne
Forget the remake. For a legion of horror fans, Pet Sematary is one of the most scarring pieces of horror cinema. Working from King’s own screenplay, Mary Harron delivers an unwavering journey into a family’s worst nightmare. There are some cheesy moments (including one especially misjudged effects sequence) but it’s got such a raw power to it. As Louis Creed keeps walking the worst possible path into a desperate attempt to make everything better again, it’s both heartbreaking and shockingly uncompromising. No one is safe, not loveable Fred Gwynne as the ever-quoteable Judd Crandall, not Church the cat, and not even poor little Gage. And, for all that Zelda still sends a shiver down our spine, nothing beats that ending. “Darling…”
6. Misery (1990)
Director: Rob Reiner
Cast: Kathy Bates, James Caan, Frances Sternhagen
“I’m your number one fan.” It still seems surprising that Rob Reiner was such a great fit for Stephen King’s grim, claustrophobic story of a bestselling author trapped by an obsessive fan, but there’s no denying the sheer power of the results. William Goldman’s screenplay strips out some of the gnarlier elements of the novel, zeroing in on the gripping power play between Kathy Bates’ deluded and dangerous Annie Wilkes and James Caan’s desperate Paul Sheldon. Bates would win a rare horror Oscar for her performance, and would go on to do more excellent King-based work in the non-genre (but highly recommended) Dolores Claiborne.
4. Salem’s Lot (1979)
Director: Tobe Hooper
Cast: David Soul, James Mason, Bonnie Bedelia
Technically we’re cheating here as Salem’s Lot was filmed and released as a mini-series in the US, but it was trimmed to a theatrical release over here so we’re counting it. And how could we not pay tribute to one of the creepiest scenes ever filmed, as the newly vampiric Danny Glick floats at Mark Petrie’s bedroom window, scratching at the glass… It is a little slow going (it’s a two-night TV event, after all) and not all of Hooper’s choices work; the decision to make Kurt Barlow into a silent blue monster is still somewhat baffling. However, the room to breathe allows Paul Monash’s screenplay to embrace the essence of King’s story: how evil can spread through a small town without anyone noticing. James Mason’s having a whale of a time as Richard Straker (“SHAMAN!”) but what really gets under your skin is the sense that it’s been too late for a happy ending since the opening credits rolled.
3. The Mist (2007)
Director: Frank Darabont
Cast: Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Laurie Holden
Frank Darabont’s second appearance on this list is for a very different film indeed. He expertly adapts King’s novella into a something that feels like a paranoid monster movie throwback (especially if you watch the director’s preferred black and white version) and something that feels incredibly timely and dangerous. King regular Thomas Jane makes an excellent everyman hero but it’s Marcia Gay Harden’s terrifying evangelist turned cult leader who steals the show as she plays upon the fears of all the people trapped inside the supermarket as monsters roam outside, looking for a way in. Tentacle creatures and giant bugs are nothing compared to a mob looking for someone to blame…
And then, of course, there’s the ending which Darabont added himself. It’s one of the all-time great gut-punches and an incredibly brave note to end on.
2. The Shining (1980)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd
Yes, it’s number two purely on account of the liberties it takes with the source material. As a film, The Shining is flawless, a hypnotic doom-laden journey into a broken man’s psychosis that was instantly iconic and which continues to yield new meanings and interpretations (not to mention a never-ending stream of production stories). Those steadi-cam shots following Danny on his trike through the Overlook corridors, that incredible score, Room 237, Lloyd the barman, Shelley Duvall’s face frozen in terror as the elevator doors open, REDRUM, and of course, Jack Nicholson’s grinning face pressed through the wreckage of the bathroom door. And yet it’s almost as famous for the fact that King hates it, can’t stand the fact that Jack is clearly a hair’s breadth from grabbing an axe from the get-go. It’s very easy to see what he means (and at least he got to have a go himself when he scripted the 1997 mini-series) but that doesn’t mean we have to agree with him.
1. Carrie (1976)
Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: Sissy Spacek, Amy Irving, Nancy Allen
The perfect melding of a filmmaker’s sensibility and a fidelity to the source material. Brian De Palma uses plenty of idiosyncratic visual tics and plays up the dark humour to a dangerously campy extent, but it all just…works. Because at the centre of the film is Sissy Spacek’s Carrie, arguably the best rendition of any King character ever. It’s a dazzling performance that’s all the more effective for the rest of the cast going very, very big (take a bow, Piper Laurie) and it’s crucial for that key element of Carrie’s third act. We need to root for Carrie and to hate the monstrous bullies, thoughtless teachers and her cruel mother, but when she unleashes her power it needs to be terrifying. That snap when control is lost is both what we’re eagerly waiting to see and what we have excellent reason to fear. De Palma can spill blood with style and tremendous relish, but it’s nothing without Spacek’s impossibly wide eyes burning a hole in the screen.