Cinematic Dreams And Celluloid Nightmares: The Best And Worst Of Stephen King On Screen
When you open the page of a Stephen King novel, you are welcoming nightmares of the very best kind. Fans of the author will know this too well as, despite the bone-chilling moments they have experienced while reading, they continue to turn the pages of his books with fearless anticipation of the horrors that are to come.
Sadly, the brilliance of Stephen King hasn’t always been realized on the screen. While there have been some excellent movie adaptations of his works, there have been those other cinematic translations that have given King fans nightmares, for all of the wrong reasons. We will take a look at some of the best and worst of Stephen King on the screen below, so keep reading if you want to know what films to add to your watchlist, and what films you should probably avoid.
Best: IT: Chapters 1 And 2 (2017 And 2019)
As the original novel was epic in both scope and page number, this movie had to be split into two parts to retain the majesty of King’s work. Thankfully, neither chapter disappointed. The films closely followed the novel, telling the story of The Losers Club going up against the otherworldly Pennywise the Clown in their town of Derry, Maine. Chapter 1 sees our band of heroes go up against the menace as children, and Chapter 2 sees them return as adults to finally finish off the creature that preys on their worst fears.
Both chapters are long, but because the story is gripping, and because we enjoy spending time with the heroes at the heart of the film, the length doesn’t matter. The films are shockingly violent, psychologically intense, and a reminder that clowns are damn scary, even if the one at the center of the film isn’t really a clown at all, but something that exists to embody our worst (or best) nightmares.
You can stream It Chapter 1 on TNT right now.
WORST: The Mangler (1995)
Stephen King dreamed up the original short story while working at a local laundry during the early part of his career. His tale of a demonically possessed mangle was undoubtedly an unusual one, but it was scary enough. The film, however, was made on the cheap, and when the mangle developed legs and started chasing people, it triggered squeals of laughter rather than squeals of fear. Despite the bizarre premise, you might have expected better from the film, as it was directed by horror maestro Tobe Hooper. Sadly, it was a flop, and so were the non-King related sequels that followed. You will have more fun watching the laundry spin in your washing machine.
If you want (you probably don’t) to watch The Mangler you can rent it on Vudu.
BEST: The Mist (2007)
Director Frank Darabont was no stranger to Kings’ work, as he had previously adapted two stories to brilliant effect, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. This adaptation of the author’s 1985 novella was his first attempt at one of the author’s works of horror fiction, however, and he turned out another great film. Telling the story of a group of people trapped in a supermarket while monsters lie in wait in the mist outside, Darabont successfully brought the scares, even if he did make bleak changes to the fairly optimistic ending of King’s story. Typically for a King adaptation, we also learn that the biggest monsters are sometimes the people around us and not the creatures that lie in wait for our blood outside.
You can watch The Mist for free on Crackle.
WORST: Graveyard Shift (1990)
Based on one of Kings’ earliest short stories, this is schlocky B-movie horror at its very worst. Overnight workers keep getting killed at a newly reopened textile mill and nobody can figure out why. Sadly, they were better off not knowing, because when it is revealed that the killer is a large bat/rat hybrid, the movie dissolves into a yucky horror that contains more cheap bloodletting than storytelling brains. Kudos for the ecological message (the monster is a result of toxins that have leaked out into the river), but otherwise, this is one film, like the giant bat mutant at the heart of the story, that is better left unseen.
If you are hard up and really want to watch this movie. You can rent it from Amazon Prime.
BEST: The Shining (1980)
Stephen King won’t agree with the inclusion of this film on the ‘best’ list, as he famously hates it. Why? Well, in his 1977 novel, Jack Torrence, the new caretaker of The Overlook Hotel, was a nice family guy, who descended into madness slowly when haunted by the spirits that resided in the hotel. As played by Jack Nicholson in the film, the character of Torrence appears crazy from the off, and the character arc of the novel is seriously undermined. Still, unlike such films as The Running Man and The Lawnmower Man, two other adaptations that veered away from King’s source novels with less than successful results, Kubrick’s movie is a good one. He successfully conveys the otherworldly evil of the hotel and delivers an avalanche of terrifying scenes – the rotting witch in Room 237, the twin girls who haunt poor Danny, the ax-wielding Torrence, and the chase through the haunted maze. Kubrick strips down King’s novel to its horror essentials, and arguably, the film is all the better for it.
Go rent or buy The Shining on Amazon Prime.
WORST: Dreamcatcher (2003)
King was once asked if there were any subjects that he considered off-limits. He suggested certain types of sadism and anything that had to do with what goes down the toilet. Concerning the latter, he broke that taboo with his 2001 novel, telling the story of alien parasites that are birthed through defecation. Laurence Kasdan’s movie retold the events of the novel, the tale of four friends on a hunting trip who are faced with the worst type of body horror, but sadly, his film was a stinker. A mishmash of Croneenbergian terror and a military-style thriller, the movie made very little sense, with special effects that belied the big-budget behind the film, and monster movie cliches that should long have been flushed away by Hollywood scriptwriters. Admittedly, King’s novel was written while he was on painkillers after his near-death accident, and was a bizarre and hallucinatory tale, so it was perhaps no surprise that the film was a weird one. Still, with a great director at the helm, it certainly could have been a lot better than the cinematic poop that audiences were left with.
Uhmmm if bad movies are your thing. You can check it out on Fandango. It will cost you though.
Honorable And Dishonorable Mentions
We have barely scratched the surface when it comes to the best of Stephen King, but if you’re looking for more, I definitely recommend such 80s classics as Cujo, The Dead Zone, Christine, and horror anthology Creepshow which brought a number of King’s short stories to the screen. Let’s not forget Misery either, the 1990 movie that earned Kathy Bates an Oscar for her terrifying turn as psycho-nurse Annie Wilkes. King’s first novel and the first King adaptation, Carrie, also deserves a mention of course (forget about the remakes), and some of those adaptations made from his more recent works, Gerald’s Game, Pet Sematary, and Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining, are also to be recommended.
When it comes to the worst of Stephen King on screen, there are, sadly, far too many to mention. Vampire tale Sleepwalkers sent audiences to sleep, King’s only directorial effort Maximum Overdrive didn’t live up to its exciting title, and Thinner, the tale of a man cursed to lose weight, similarly cursed the minds of movie audiences. These are but a few examples, but you might want to add The Dark Tower to the list, as it stripped bare the elegance of King’s work, and with the exception of Salem’s Lot and The Stand, you might want to include some of the TV adaptations of King’s work too. These include The Tommyknockers, Desperation, and the televisual bag of bones that was…erm…Bag of Bones.
There are plenty more Stephen King adaptations on the horizon, including Sleeping Beauties, Revival, and the long-awaited The Talisman, so let’s hope they evoke nightmares of the best kind and not the execrable nightmares of Dreamcatcher and the like that have disappointed fans of the esteemed horror author.
Lee Brown is a UK-based freelance writer, and has written movie-related articles for such websites as Flickering Myth, Blasting News, and So The Theory Goes. In his spare time, Lee continues to write, focussing on story writing, playwriting, and poetry. Some of Lee’s work has been published in printed and eBook formats, and he has had one play transmitted over local radio. He is an avid movie buff and TV binge-watcher, and probably spends more time than he should sat behind a pillow watching horror movies from his sofa!