(Old-school reprint from Cinematical. Happy Halloween!)
Wow, this is going to be hard for two reasons. On one hand I'll find it tough to rank my very favorite Stephen King movies because the ones I love ... I really love. On the other hand there's been a whole LOT of rotten King flicks churned out over the years -- and I actually like some of those, too! But as a lifelong King kook I think I'm able to separate the wheat from the chaff -- even if, yes it's true, I actually sort of enjoyed Tobe Hooper's The Mangler. (It's just so enjoyably stupid!) So with that I bring you my own personal picks for the best Stephen King adaptations yet (not counting TV shows, mini-series or short films).
Christine (1983) -- Yes, the book is better and sure, a few important things were monkeyed with on the way from page to screen, but there's so much I do like about John Carpenter's adaptation that it makes the speed bumps a lot easier to handle. From the filmmaker's creepy score to an excellent lead performance by Keith Gordon, the flick's just got an admirably bad-ass attitude. Stripped down to its essence, Christine is not much more than another "geek fights back" revenge-centric horror flick, but Carpenter makes the movie his own with a solid production design, a few excellent set pieces and a pace that moves at an appreciable clip. Plus that car is just so damn cool.
Pet Sematary (1989) -- Just about every hardcore horror geek I know holds Pet Sematary in pretty high regard, and just one visit with this bleak and unflinching piece of pulp horror will explain why. It's a remarkably grim and unapologetic tale of dead cats, cute kids and a patch of land that, well, it resurrects dead tissue is what it does. And if you've read even one "back from the dead" story, then you know they never end well. (Pet Sematary, both the book and the movie, packs one doozy of a dark denouement.) OK, so maybe Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby aren't exactly the rock-solid thespians you'd want for a screenplay this devilishly mean-spirited, but the pair do what they can, plus they've got good ol' Fred Gwynne supplying background color by the bucketful. (And don't forget about poor sickly Zelda! Yuck.)
Carrie (1976) -- The very first (and arguably one of the very best) of the Stephen King movies, Carrie hit the screens courtesy of a young Brian De Palma, and the director pulled out a big bag of Hitchcockian tricks to bring the story to the silver screen. It's about a socially bankrupt young girl who tries to cobble together a normal social life ... much to the chagrin of some snotty she-bullies and a resoundingly devout lunatic of a mother. Some might say the flick takes a long while to get where it's going, but between the prom night finale and the graveside stinger, Carrie more than delivers its share of grisly goods. Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie make it watchable all by themselves, but De Palma is the real star here. (OK, De Palma and a young, evil John Travolta.)
Misery (1990) -- When I heard that someone was about to make a movie version of Misery, one of my very favorite King novels, I was both excited and worried. Then when I heard it was Rob Reiner who'd be at the helm, I got really, well, worried. (Nothing against Reiner, because at that point in his career he'd made some damn good movies, but this was a dark and intense novel, and I just didn't see it as Reiner material. I was wrong.) Forget about the Oscar-winning performance by Kathy Bates and the phenomenal work from leading man James Caan. Ignore the brilliant adaptation work done by screenwriter William Goldman and Reiner's cool, confident hand behind the camera. The thing I'll always remember about Misery is ... the sledgehammer. What an ice-water horrifying scene that is. And in the book it was an axe!
The Shining (1980) -- Some people opt to call it an unquestionable masterpiece simply because The Shining has Stanley Kubrick's name on it. Well, I wouldn't even put this movie among Kubrick's Top 5 -- but I do remember this flick giving me more than one bout of CNS (Childhood Nightmare Syndrome). Most of the attention is paid to Jack Nicholson's immortally over-the-top role as a hotel caretaker gone nutty, but for me (and most people) the hotel is actually the star of the film. The long and chilly hallway wanderings are, to me, even scarier than the undead twins and the elevators full of blood. Despite numerous deviations from the source material, The Shining still stands up as a true-blue butt-kicker among "haunted edifice" flicks. It's infinitely more Kubrick than it is King, but I still dig it a whole lot anyway.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994) -- There's a reason that this particular film, which grossed only $28 million in domestic box office before reaping huge profits on cable and video, has become the "word of mouth" mega-smash of my generation, and that reason is this: The Shawshank Redemption is just about as close to "perfect" as a movie can get. I'm sure you've all seen it at least three times by now, so I'll spare you the elaborate plot threads, but suffice to say that it's a movie about friendship, loyalty, prison rape and revenge. It's got great stars (Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman), a whole bunch of great character actors, a dozen scenes that are what I call "instantly re-watchable," and an ending that's guaranteed to put a walnut-sized lump in your throat. Easily one of the best King adaptations ever produced, and get this: It's not even remotely a horror movie!!
The Dead Zone (1983) -- Yeah, my #1 pick might raise a few eyebrows among the casual King fans, but to those of you who've actually seen David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone recently, I ask you: Is it really that strange of a pick? I think not. In my eyes it's one of the very finest King adaptations because it sticks close to the source material without being slavish about it, it's disturbing and creepy in a "smart" way, it has a really twisted subplot about a serial killer, it's got one of Michael Kamen's very best scores, it's got a truckload of great actors (Martin Sheen, Anthony Zerbe, Tom Skerritt, Herbert Lom!), it's sad and sweet and scary, it's got one powerfully satisfying (and cleverly ironic) finale -- AND it's got that rarest of treats: A lead performance by master entertainer Christopher Walken. The guy gives a wonderful performance, too, wonderfully free of the trademark Walkenisms that have made the actor such an irrepressible cult favorite. Damn, just writing this stuff out makes me want to go and give The Dead Zone a fresh spin. So I will.
My apologies to the following films, which I definitely like -- just not enough to include 'em among my Top 7: Creepshow (1982), Cujo (1983), Stand By Me (1986), Dolores Claiborne (1995), Apt Pupil (1998) and The Green Mile (1999). If you're looking for something best described as a worthwhile guilty pleasure, I've no problem throwing a little love towards Firestarter (1984), Cat's Eye (1985), Creepshow 2 (1987), Needful Things (1993), The Dark Half (1993), Thinner (1996), The Night Flier (1997) and Secret Window (2004). Those who are ready for a fresh infusion of King flicks need only wait a few months. On the way are movie versions of 1408, From a Buick 8, The Mist and Cell.