Killer clowns. Haunted hotels. Whatever the hell the Tommyknockers are. For some forty years, Stephen King’s unique brand of terror has caused sleepless nights the world over -- and not just on the page. The success of his first novel Carrie led to King’s stories becoming an endless well for the movie industry. With film rights being snapped up left and right, a whole new genre was birthed, and here we are, decades later discussing the best Stephen King movies. His nightmarish visions, perfect for big screen scares, alongside his less-spooky efforts, have spawned a volume of movies.
That trend continues this week with the release of Pet Sematary (out April 4 in the UK and April 5 in the UK). This is a fresh adaptation of his tragic ‘80s tome that begins with an ancient burial ground, a shovel, and an unfortunate cat, and evolves into something far more wicked. Before you hit the multiplex to catch it, ushering in a series of sleepless nights, you might want to know what you’re getting yourself into. King’s scary tales do have a particular flavour, after all. So, whether you dig the “bring a spare pair” fare or the tearjerker period dramas, there’s plenty to choose from among the best Stephen King movies.
25. The Dark Half (1993)
The movie: Tapping into a world familiar to King, that of the troubled writer, this early ‘90s pic casts Timothy Hutton as Thad Beaumont, a novelist who attempts to lay to rest the pen name under which he’s churned out a slew of popular books. His exiled pseudonym, George Stark, then comes to life as a drunken doppelganger intent on destroying Thad’s life.
What it got right: Only one director could do justice to a body horror that plays like Fight Club meets Misery. George Romero, he of the Living Dead fame, tackles this tongue-in-cheek King story with the perfect balance of tone. Playful and breezy, thanks to its gore, it still gets dark at times.
24. Silver Bullet (1985)
The movie: Hands up who never knew King wrote a werewolf novel? Silver Bullet romps up the scrappy Cycle of the Werewolf novella into a campy good time. This Maine-set tale follows Marty (Corey Haim), a young lad in the town of Harker’s Mill who rallies together his sister and uncle to track down the bloodthirsty beast savaging the townsfolk.
What it got right: One of the most overlooked of King adaptations, its brisk pace never affords you the chance to linger on its shortcomings, instead throwing out cinema gold like a scene wherein a werewolf wields a baseball bat and beats a man to death with it. Or when an entire church procession transforms into wolves. And speaking of, the flick boasts an impressive beast, twisting some of the typical werewolf visuals, like having a gigantic snout, to tremendous effect.
23. Cujo (1983)
The movie: Arguably the King adaptation most frequently checked in pop culture, Cujo tells the tale of a rabid St. Bernard left alone to slowly succumb to the viciousness of its disease. Strung up in a dusty yard on a hot day, exacerbating the matter tenfold, things turn sour when a young mother (Dee Wallace Stone) and her child drive onto the lot only to have their car break down. Quickly they become the object of Cujo’s attention.
What it got right: Rather unfairly maligned from the get-go because of its more “straight” aspirations. There’s no supernatural beastie as this is about a mistreated dog left unchecked that eventually turns monstrous - an allegory for King’s own experiences with addiction. The claustrophobia of the scenario, being captive in a baking hot car with a slobbering beast at your door, is truly frightening.
22. Children of the Corn (1984)
The movie: On their way to Seattle to start their new life, young couple Vicky and Burt (Linda Hamilton and Peter Horton) make an ill-fated stop in a small Nebraskan town. With its empty storefronts and run-down homes, Gaitlin appears to be abandoned, and there’s a good reason why. The pair encounter a group of creepy youngsters, who are soon revealed to be working on behalf of a religious cult that serves a deity known as “He Who Walks Behind The Rows.” Not creepy at all.
What it got right: It’s easy to forget how good the original Children of the Corn is in light of its endless stream of direct-to-video sequels. This sleek Midwestern slasher is surprisingly tense despite so much of its action happening in the sun-kissed cornfields during daytime.
21. 1408 (2008)
The movie: Mike Enslin (John Cusack) spends his life debunking supposed paranormal occurrences, so isn’t particularly fazed when he rocks up to his next assignment. The supposedly haunted room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel may sound like just another tourist trap, but when the manager - a superb Samuel L. Jackson - even dubs it “fucking evil” perhaps the rumours are true.
What it got right: At this point, King's influence over the big screen was waning. But director Mikael Håfström reminds us how it should be done, stuffing his film full of atmosphere and grisly discoveries. The ending's a letdown, but this is an effective jumper with a handful of decent twists and turns.
20. Hearts in Atlantis (2001)
The movie: Nabbing its name from a collection of novellas, Hearts in Atlantis adapts the story Low Men in Yellow Coats, which - as King completists will know - is a direct connection to his Dark Tower mythology. Although, you wouldn’t know it based on this film that eschews the sly winks of connectivity for a standalone tale surrounding the mysterious Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins), who moves into town, and changes the lives of young Bobby (Anton Yelchin) and his mother forever.
What it got right: The casting of Anthony Hopkins adds an extra layer of mystery (and inherent menace) to a character that could have been twee in the hands of a lesser talent. Emotionally complex and moving, this is one of the more low-key King adaptations - that doesn’t boast a mess of blood and guts - but it's all the better for it.
19. Cat's Eye (1985)
The movie: Cat’s Eye wraps a loose story, that of a mangy, stray cat, around its trio of tales to form a snug anthology of oddities. Two are based on stories from King’s Night Shift collection. Quitters Inc. stars James Woods as a guy who signs up with a shady firm to help him stop smoking and The Ledge, which will do nothing to quash your fear of heights. The third, The General, is an original script that’s a blast as it features Drew Barrymore, a troll, and the aforementioned kitty.
What it got right: The choice to tackle some of King’s best stories in the form of shorter vignettes is, well, kinda genius really. Cat’s Eye is a lot of fun, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Despite it being one of the best Stephen King movies, it would also be worth investigating the idea of a TV anthology series based on these succinct bites.
18. Christine (1983)
The movie: Based on a doorstopper of a book, Christine is a favourite among fans, despite its lukewarm critical reception. Like the novel, the movie follows uber-nerd Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon), who isn’t exactly popular, living vicariously through his jock best friend Dennis (John Stockwell). But after Arnie eyes up a dilapidated ‘58 Plymouth tagged Christine, which may have a few secrets hiding under the hood, his life takes an interesting turn.
What it got right: There's a pulpy charm to John Carpenter's haunted vehicle pic, with the auteur's characteristic focus on, er, characters keeping the engine purring nicely. Carpenter's score is also another streamlined beauty. The best film about a haunted car you're ever likely to see. Take that, Transformers.
17. Firestarter (1984)
The movie: A shady organisation offers college students serious cash to participate in experiments where they are dosed with a hallucinogen. Andy and Vicky (David Keith and Heather Locklear) meet during these sessions and it’s only afterwards they realise they’ve acquired skills: he can change people’s will and she can read minds. Once their daughter young Charlie (Drew Barrymore) turns 9 she exhibits pyrokinetic abilities: she can start fires with her mind. Once “The Shop” - the agency behind the experiments - realises, they’ll do anything to capture her...
What it got right: Casting Barrymore, hot off E.T., as the young Charlie is a masterstroke and it’s largely her performance that makes this early ‘80s thriller worth a watch. A mish-mash of King’s tried-and-tested subjects, telekinetic ability in young women, paranoia, and shady government projects, it’s a blast.
16. Salems Lot (1979)
The movie: The small town of Salem’s Lot may look quaint on the surface, but beneath lies an ancient evil in the form of an old vampire desperate to take over. When novelist Ben Mears (David Soul) returns home, he quickly discovers the new antique store owners are hiding something. Yes, corpses. It’s up to Mears and a young horror fanatic to stop the vampire that's laying siege to their town.
What it got right: With Tobe Hooper behind the camera, Salem's Lot has a potent mood and a great protagonist in Mears, who transforms slowly from bookish author to all-out vampire slayer. Genuinely chilling in places - especially that window scene. Plus, you’ve got to give King credit for calling a vampire Kurt Barlow.