15) The Stand miniseries
Laurel Entertainment/ABC Network
It’s cheesy today, yes, but it’s not the miniseries’ fault that it was made in 1994. If nothing else, an attempt to comprehensively tackle such a massive book is admirable. Say what you will about The Stand, but it’s not lacking in passion.
14) Silver Bullet
Great werewolf movies are few and far between. This… probably wasn’t one of them. But with a younger Gary Busey and perfectly dated effects, an aged humor has settled into this movie without completely eradicating the element of menace.
Cujo presents a monster as intimidating as some of the greats and a claustrophobic hopelessness comparable to that of The Descent. The fright might be more in concept than execution, but the survival element of acting sells it well enough.
12) It miniseries (1990)
Lorimar Productions/ABC Network
This is a case of an adaptation’s limitations actually benefitting it. If you haven’t read It, you should know that it’s absolutely insane, and the inability to faithfully translate its mind-boggling craziness to television in 1990 made for a miniseries that is frightening and disturbing without the book’s weirdest elements.
11) The Green Mile
See: The Shawshank Redemption (below). The two are almost identical.
10) The Mist
The brutality of the ending is worthy of praise, and the cast of characters reflects the spirit of King’s large ensembles right down to some of their archetypes.
9) Salem’s Lot miniseries (1979)
Years later, Salem’s Lot is still receiving credit for the masterful handle it holds on its surreal gothic atmosphere. It stands as one of the quintessential vampire films of the second half of the century and its utilization of small town New England mythology and politics exemplify some of King’s most promising storytelling techniques.
This will be a surprising ranking for some, but 1408 gets at the beating heart underneath King’s terror in a way that few other adaptations do. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also, well, terrifying.
7) The Dead Zone
Christopher Walken’s performance in The Dead Zone sort of feels like his first heel turn toward the weirdness we expect of him today. There’s something very precise about the The Dead Zone‘s timely government paranoia and the whole film is elevated by that uneasiness.
6) Stand by Me
Boyhood has likely usurped this film as the definitive coming-of-age story for suburban boys, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still charming and insightful.
King’s scariest stories often share commonalities: a lack of the supernatural, a protagonist alone and trapped (in a bed, more than once), a villain so powerfully evil that their motivations become almost abstract. Misery is a great example, and it succeeds in no small part due to Kathy Bates. For the film to work, you have to believe that she would go to violent extremes over her favorite character in a book dying. Bates is sinister and psychopathic, but there’s an earnestness to her as well. A crazy villain can be scary, but a crazy villain who genuinely believes that being kind and doing the right thing? It doesn’t get much more disturbing.
4) Carrie (1976)
King’s first novel was adapted only two years after its release, capitalizing on the book’s success. Unlike so many cash-in adaptations, Carrie remains in the pop culture zeitgeist to this day. The climactic prom scene is its most iconic element, but it’s also a fascinating (if occasionally lurid) look at the psychological effects of child abuse and its intersection with religious extremism. We remember what happens at prom, but sometimes we forget what makes that scene so tragic — for a while, it seems like things are getting better for Carrie. You think the movie might have a happy ending.
3) Pet Sematary
King has spoken several times about his early reluctance to publish his novel Pet Sematary. His frequent testimony suggests that this is a deeply personal work, written in a time of loss, and the storyline nakedly exhibits a writer exploring the unspoken dark corners of mortality. It is that element of despair, mourning, and mortal self-awareness that come together in the film adaptation to make it one of King’s scariest. It’s not the resurrected dead or their acts of violence that heighten the fear, but the images of the barely living or just deceased. The eerie images of the calm prophetic ghost of the lost student and Rachel’s sister calling her name from the bed stand out as some of the most haunting in 1980s horror.
2) The Shawshank Redemption
Castle Rock Entertainment/Columbia Pictures
Ah, The Shawshank Redemption, the most popular “under-seen” film of all time. Given its ubiquity today, it’s easy to forget how roundly ignored it was by the public when it was released. Shawshank is sentimental to a fault, but it earns its mushiness by grounding it in pain. The emotional beats of the film are gentle rather than melodramatic, so it doesn’t feel as though you’re being tricked into feeling something. It’s not a particularly complex film, but it’s a sweet affirmation of the human spirit, and it’s always good to have movies like that around.
1) The Shining (1980)
The best adaptation of King’s work is the one that strays the furthest from its source. Stanley Kubrick’s film is one of the best cinematic adaptations of all time because it uses the language of the medium to tell the story in a way the book never could have. Yes, we miss out on some of the novel’s scariest moments, but there’s a reason that Kubrick’s version is more lasting than the TV miniseries which made very few changes from the page. The book was very scary in a way that a book can be, and this film was very scary in a way that a film can be. That’s what makes it such a powerful horror film, regardless of its fidelity to the source material.