On page he has terrified for decades but on both the big and small screen the results have sometimes been decidedly mixed, but here – in no particular order – is my ten fave Stephen King translations to film and TV.
10. The Dead Zone (1983)
This sterling adaptation is one of Director David Cronenberg’s more mainstream, accessible films. Christopher Walken excels with a haunting performance as school teacher Johnny Smith who is involved in a car accident and awakes from a coma several years later to discover he is ‘blessed’ with the ability to see a person’s secret or future by touching them.
It’s got an uneasy, claustrophobic feel throughout in everything from camera shots to lighting and especially Walken’s off-kilter turn. A fantastic psychological thriller with more than the odd jumpy moment which also sees fine support from Herbert Lom, Brooke Adams and Martin Sheen. A great ending.
9. Stand By Me (1986)
King isn’t just all about horror. Stand By Me is an adaptation from one of his novellas, The Body, and it’s a life-changing film that is right up there with It’s A Wonderful Life in the timeless classic stakes.
Semi-autobiographical, it recounts the tale of four young friends as they spend a summer holiday searching for a dead body. They set out eager to get a peek at the corpse but each of them grows and changes along the way.
The ending is now all the more poignant since the death of River Phoenix and those dullest tones of Richard Dreyfuss scattered throughout add gravitas. With dialogue like, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”
8. Salem’s Lot (1979)
Made for TV in two parts but released theatrically in a shorter form in the UK, it’s the two-part version that is getting the thumbs up here. Directed by none other than Tobe Hooper this has to be one of the most jump inducing things to have ever graced TV screens.
Vampires taking over a small town are the order of the day as a best-selling author (David Soul) returns home but all is not as it seems. James Mason is kooky and his business partner, Mr Barlow, is clearly Nosferatu inspired and frankly disturbing. The scene where a floating vampire child appears at a window scratching and beckoning its next victim, with smoke and shot backwards to complete the eerie effect, still holds up as a classic scene to this day. You’ll never leave your curtains open again.
7. IT (1990)
Another made for TV adaptation, this time directed by John Carpenter alumnus, Tommy Lee Wallace. Tim Curry is electric as Pennywise the Clown. The first part is brilliant stuff, part Stand By Me, part your worst nightmares. It’s just a shame about the really lame giant spider in the (anti) climax.
Soon to get the remake treatment. Keep Curry and the storm drain; squish the spider in a giant tissue.
6. The Shining (1980)
Stephen King has never had much time for this adaptation but this is the ultimate haunted house (well, hotel) movie. It’s not so much scary per se but with its astounding visuals, it being one of the first films to fully utilise the steadicam, symbolism and uneasy foreboding it certainly leaves you breathless. Added to that Kubrick really makes you feel the coldness and isolation.
Nicholson defines bonkers with his splendid turn, whilst his son, played by Danny Lloyd, criminally in his only film role, manages to make his finger one of cinema’s scariest things ever. Redrum, redrum, redrum. Lifts and indeed triple Grand National winners were never the same again.
5. Misery (1990)
Kathy Bates even outshines Jack Nicholson here and is the only actor to pick up an Oscar for a role in a Stephen King film as the ‘wouldn’t hurt a fly as nice as pie’ Annie Wilkes. Dirty bird. Simple, terrifying and almost primeval in its horror.
James Caan’s character is ‘rescued’ from a car crash by his number one fan, just turns out she is a tad loopy and none too pleased he has killed off his lead character. Features one of the most wince-inducing moments in cinema, a tour de force, essential viewing and far more horrific than all of King’s possessed cars, vampires and children with strange powers put together.
4. The Green Mile (1999)
After The Shawshank Redemption this is Frank Darabont’s second stab at a King adaptation and for me is the better, more absorbing of the two. I know for many they find it overlong and over sentimental but you cannot deny its power to grab you, to fall in love with a mouse, to hate that guy who played Tooms on The X Files, swear at the television as you release his actions and fall in love with the gentle giant of Michael Clarke Duncan.
Once again Tom Hanks proves why he is this generation’s James Stewart and is therefore rather fitting that although it deals with death row inmates and supernatural undertones it has a distinct Capra-esque feel to it. I defy you not to cry.
3. The Mist (2007)
Also directed by Darabont this dark tale was pretty much ignored upon theatrical release, which is a crying shame as it’s a blinder. A small town is effectively cut off after a mysterious mist descends on it. Much of the town hole themselves up in the local supermarket until something starts attacking people and dragging them into the mist.
Essentially a classic 50s B-movie monster movie this has scares and effective special effects aplenty. To underline this fact it was even released on DVD in America with the option of you watching it in black and white, which it works in fantastically well.
Many of the towns folk are as terrifying as the creatures themselves and it has a real post 9/11 feel about it in places, as ever King showing us that people can be just as monstrous as actual monsters themselves. It could also be viewed in many ways as the anti-War of the Worlds and has a truly dystopian ending that will leave you reeling. An effective piece of film making that never loses your attention.
2. Pet Sematary (1989)
The film boasts some genuinely scary scenes, possibly the most frightening flashback sequence ever and Hermann Munster!
It’s undeniably creepy and raises some interesting questions about morality, death and how we deal with grief. Kings own screenplay adaptation, he even has a cameo at a funeral, blends supernatural horror with the ultimate real life horror of losing your family. The person you bury may return to life, but they aren’t the same person, there is something missing, something evil about them.
It also has an ancient American Indian burial ground, which is never, ever a good sign in a horror movie, even though it looks brilliant thanks to some excellent production design, a zombie cat, a murderous toddler with a scalpel that makes Chucky look like Maggie Simpson, and one helluva an ending. As former Munster, a fantastic Fred Gwynne, utters, “sometimes dead is better”.
1. Carrie (1976)
Fittingly both the first novel penned by King and his first ever film adaptation, helmed by Hitchcock super fan, Brian De Palma. The split screen technique may have dated it all somewhat but that still doesn’t deny the film its power and ferocity. Nobody likes a bully and Sissy Spacek ensures we have a character that is both likable and much misunderstood.
A high school revenge coming of age horror, Degrassi Junior High was never like this; Carrie is note perfect in showing that bullies never prosper. The pig’s blood scene is truly iconic and disturbing whilst the scare the bejesus out of you ending has been oft-imitated but rarely bettered. With its soft focus at times it has a dreamlike feeling to it, but don’t fool yourself this is bonafide horror.