He's the sultan of screams, the head honcho of horror, the duke of disgust -- whether you measure by the sheer metric tonnage of his output or the harder-to-quantify level of his influence, Stephen King bestrides modern American horror like a colossus. And with horror film interpretations like Carrie, The Shining, Christine and The Dead Zone, some of King's books also found a grasping, vulgar and vital second life thanks to the stewardship of some great horror directors. With Halloween upon us, though, I thought I'd take a look at some of the less noteworthy King adaptations -- and name the 7 worst page-to-screen projects taken from King's work. I set myself a few ground rules (only theatrical releases, nothing shot for TV, nothing that wasn't feature length) and dived in to the plethora of projects that have sprung from King's work to go looking for the trash, not the treasures. Some of these films are here because they deviate wildly from the source material; some are here because the source material wasn't that good to start with; all of them kinda tick me off in one way or another. Again, the list below is highly subjective -- because really, aren't they all?
1) Sleepwalkers (1992)
Do you recall this big-screen tale of feline shapeshifters and small-town terror? Probably not -- Sleepwalkers died at the box office, even with Ron Perlman and Madchen Amick in lead roles. Revolving around a mother-son duo of hungry shapeshifters who can only be sated by the flesh of a female virgin, Sleepwalkers was directed by Mick Garris -- who would go on to helm the small-screen adaptations of The Shining and The Stand. Based on an unpublished story by King, Sleepwalkers is so tedious that even the presence of scene-stealing creep-out queen Alice Krige (Habitat, Star Trek: First Contact) can't snap the movie out of its torpor.
2) Cujo (1983)
This is a specific case where, yes, the problem's not necessarily with the movie but rather with the source material, pitting a family against their beloved dog -- who's gone insane with rabies. King himself has admitted that Cujo was written in pretty much one beer-fueled sitting -- which he himself has almost no memory of. Dee Wallace Stone and Danny "Who's the Boss?" Pintauro play the mother-son combo facing the death-dog in the finale -- but, even beyond the low-wattage cast, as far as premises go, this "Old Yeller in hell" tale may be the thinnest one King ever committed to paper, and it shows on screen.
3) The Running Man (1987)
Yes, the Schwarzenegger-led film adaptation of this book has a certain cheeseball charm -- and Richard Dawson, which is pretty much the same thing. Problem is, everything we love in the movie -- Dawson's host-with-the-most showmanship, Jesse "The Body" Ventura's bad guy -- isn't in the original novel, a dark and dystopian tale that owes more to Richard Stark or Phillip K. Dick than Bob Barker. The movie's larded with elements like comic-book costuming, a bit part for Mick Fleetwood and post-kill catchphrases -- "He had to split," "What a pain in the neck. ..." -- that make the final film far more phony, and much less gripping, than King's original, pseudonymously-published book.
4) Children of the Corn (1984)
Many people find this rural tale of homicidal holy-roller horticulturalist hillbillies to be an okay sit -- and indeed, I have no problem with that. But when you look at the six sequels and re-visitings it inspired -- each more shabby than the last -- you realize that Children of the Corn has a lot to answer for. Yes, the sequels may have given work to both rising stars like Naomi Watts and Eva Mendes as well as B-movie titans like Karen Black and David Carradine, but by the time Children of the Corn 666: Isaac's Return rolled around, the stench of straight-to-video money-making manure was pretty thick in the air.
5) Maximum Overdrive (1986)
They say that "Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad." Nowadays, you might as well change that to "Whom the gods would destroy ... they offer the chance to direct." King himself helmed this adaptation of his short story 'Trucks," and it's got about as much subtlety and grace as the hard-charging AC/DC songs that make up the soundtrack. Maximum Overdrive's loaded with gore (Death ... by steamroller!) and is made with far more enthusiasm than competence; the whole film feels like it's trying to hump your leg. In the trailers, King himself stated his reasons for directing -- "If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself." -- but it should also be noted that King's never tried his hand at directing again since.
6) The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
No, The Shawshank Redemption's not a bad film -- the first time you watch it. But if repeat showings on free cable have turned any film into an unwelcome guest, it's Shawshank, which seems to play in a permanent loop somewhere in the mid-channel range of every cable system in America. Add in the fact that this is the film that made Morgan Freeman narration absolutely ubiquitous for decades to come, top that off with King's weirdly nostalgic and romantic approach to prisons of the past -- which helped lead to the equally over-praised The Green Mile -- and, again, Shawshank has a lot to answer for.
7) The Lawnmower Man (1992)
How bad is The Lawnmower Man? So bad that King himself sued to have his name taken out of the credits -- and this is a man willing to take credit for some of the stinkers above, so you can only imagine. King's original short story about a man beset by a weird pagan lawn service somehow became a film about a scientist (Pierce Brosnan) who uses virtual reality to turn handyman Jeff Fahey into a super-genius who then goes crrrrrazy. With no actual link between the short story and the film -- aside from the presence of gardening gear -- King sued to have his name taken off the film. With Brosnan's hackneyed turn as the well-intentioned-but-mad scientist, Fahey's insanely over-the-top performance and the computer-graphic effects (which looked dated even when released and seem almost quaint now) The Lawnmower Man proved that King's name alone couldn't make a movie a success.