Everyone who has the slightest knowledge of horror will know who Stephen King is. The acclaimed writer has been one of the most popular authors since the mid-70s, and nowadays his name is still a selling point when a studio is adapting one of his published works. A lot of these adaptations have become cinema classics; The Shawshank Redemption is regarded as one of the greatest dramas of all time whilst The Running Man has achieved sci-fi cult status. But if there’s one genre King knows best, it’s horror. So, with the hotly anticipated Doctor Sleep being released on Halloween this year, what better reason to rank every Stephen King horror movie adapted from his written work.
It does mean that a lot of his classics are unable to qualify for this list, (looking at you Salem’s Lot and It (1990)) as well as TV movies and bombed sequels that have no affiliation with King’s writing whatsoever. There’s also a thin line between thriller and horror which is always hard to find, which is why movies like Secret Window are not a part of the list, belonging more to the thriller category. Alas, let’s crack on.
(WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD)
36. Cell (2016)
It does seem like there’s been a King-renaissance in recent years with the amount of work that’s been adapted to film. But the worst of recent years and the worst of King’s entire filmography is Tod William’s Cell. Starring John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson, with a screenplay co-written by King, it seems like a good idea on paper. However, the end results is laughable, providing one of the worst endings since The Happening. A mysterious cell phone signal brings upon the apocalypse with recipients becoming bloodthirsty creatures. Cusack leads the group of people trying to survive amongst the chaos; unfortunately, he is devoid of any enthusiasm or charisma, acting like a mindless phone zombie himself. Everyone has appeared to have forgotten this film and it’d be wise if you did too.
35. Maximum Overdrive (1986)
Time for a flashback now to Stephen King’s only directorial credit, where he took the wheel for providing us with one of the worst films from the 80s. Maximum Overdrive once again follows a group of people trying to survive against technology, however this time it isn’t just limited to phones, it comes in the form of vehicles and guns. King has himself admitted that he was ‘coked out his mind’ during the entirety of making this film and he had no idea what he was doing. He can find joy in knowing that the audience has no idea either, providing a 98-minute movie where Emilio Estevez talks to cars for most of it.
34. Riding the Bullet (2004)
King’s obsession with vehicles continues in 2004’s Riding the Bullet, a film where a man spends the entire time trying to hitchhike his way to the hospital where his mother is dying. The structure of this film is nothing but set-up, dream sequence, dream sequence disguised as real-life, dream sequence disguised as real-life again, and then finally the real-life consequences. This would probably only be a 15-minute short film if you were to cut every scene that doesn’t actually matter. It also features one of the most bizarre performances I’ve ever seen in David Arquette’s George Staub.
33. Graveyard Shift (1990)
As we dive down now to Ralph S. Singleton’s Graveyard Shift, take note that Singleton has not directed anything since. In a very old textile mill with a serious rat infestation, the workers discover a horrifying secret deep in the basement, a bigger rat. It’s basically Peter Griffin’s Big Jaws pitch applied to rats, with the giant rat looking very much like an animatronic whenever we get a glimpse of it. The only thing worth remembering in the film is the fact that Diet Pepsi happily agreed to a contract where Diet Pepsi cans would be used repeatedly in the film. However, they only really ended up being used as projectiles to fire at the rats.
32. The Mangler (1995)
One thing you can guarantee with Stephen King is that his name can always attract big-time directors to a project. Which must be the only reason why famed horror director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) agreed to direct and co-write The Mangler: a film about a possessed laundry-folding machine. Yes, a laundry-folding machine. It includes detectives, a demon and a psychotic owner played by Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund. It seems like the film is trying to say something about capitalism, but this film is a train wreck from start to finish.
31. Sleepwalkers (1992)
Just in time for Tom Hooper’s Cats, Sleepwalkers follows a mother and son who move to a small Indiana town after killing a young girl in California. They are on the prowl for their next victim, and the film features some of the dodgiest dialogue the 90s has to offer. The mother and son relationship may try to resemble Psycho but all it really does is make you wish you were watching something better. Stephen King wrote the screenplay for this based off an unpublished novel… maybe it should have stayed that way.
30. Mercy (2014)
A low-budget 79-minute horror movie that has no resemblance to Stephen King whatsoever. A clear money-making scheme hoping it can triple its miniscule budget purely by writing Stephen King on the cover. A single mom and her two boys have to help take care of their mystical grandmother and that’s it really, grandma-babysitting for over an hour. Nothing really happens in the movie and it’s so deep in the King vault that I’m still not sure if it should count. But hey ho.
29. A Good Marriage (2014)
Same year and same reason for why the film exists. Although A Good Marriage has a much more interesting concept, it quickly loses its audience after the first act. It’s supposedly based off a horror film, but there’s no real horror or meaning to take away from this film. King wrote the screenplay for this one again and at this point we have to wonder whether he should be allowed to write another one. With a talented cast of Joan Allen, Anthony LaPaglia and Stephen Lang, this film feels like a major disappointment.
28. Thinner (1996)
One of the most ridiculous concepts of all time, but who else than King. An obese, self-centred attorney finds himself growing thinner after an old gypsy places a hex on him. But as he struggles to get the gypsy to agree to lift the curse, he finds himself losing pound after pound to his own death. Thinner features some of the most noticeable prosthetics of all time and one of the most dislikeable main characters around. A complete mix-up of ideas, director Tom Holland hated the ending due to the producers changing it. As did test audiences and regular audiences.
27. Silver Bullet (1985)
Nothing says cocaine-energy like a 80s King screenplay with Gary Busey as a central character. Busey ad-libbed most of his lines and also performed his own stunts, one being to jump on an air-compressed catapult and launch himself through the air into breakaway furniture. Silver Bullet follows a young handicapped boy solving the murders in his hometown, believing them to be caused by a werewolf. It’s an interesting idea but unfortunately the execution falls short this time round.
26. Creepshow 2 (1987)
After the success of George A Romero’s Creepshow, he came back to write the screenplay for its sequel. Three individual stories, ones that follow a monstrous lake blob, a vengeful Native American and a hitchhiker who physically cannot die. It’s the perfect kind of film to introduce to youngsters before they jump on board with the truly scary horror. Although the last story is the only one to provide goose bumps, it still has an unquestionable aesthetic to it. Maybe watching the modern Creepshow TV series would suffice instead.
25. Carrie (2013)
A very disappointing movie from a very promising director in Kimberly Peirce. 2013’s Carrie (the third version of this story) paints a very similar picture to the ones that came before it. Focusing on the motherly figure when you have Julianne Moore seems like the right call, and the right way to make your version different. Unfortunately, this film is as bland as plain white toast. A classic being remade for a clueless, easily bored teen audience is not the way to go. The producers tried to communicate with Stephen King, but he did not consult on the film… at all.
24. Dreamcatcher (2003)
This time, Lawrence Kasdan (writer of Raiders of the Lost Ark) stepped up the mount of directing. Dreamcatcher follows a group of friends on a camping trip discovering that the town they’re vacationing in is being plagued by parasitic aliens from outer space. The ensemble of this film is truly special and should have been amounted to much more than whatever this was. Morgan Freeman, Thomas Jane, Jason Lee, Damian Lewis and Timothy Olyphant lead the way in this overtly long sci-fi horror. Olyphant’s career truly is the definition of a monkey’s paw in that he would gain an illustrious TV career but in return never be gifted a great leading film role like he deserves.
23. The Lawnmower Man (1992)
A movie that doesn’t belong on this list but is still here anyway. The only reason King is credited for this film is because New Line Cinema obtained the rights to his story and so placed his title The Lawnmower Man on their unrelated script, Cyber God. King was furious and sued the studio to have his name and title removed, which they refused and had to play ten thousand dollars and full profits in compensation. The film itself is the perfection definition of bad 90s VFX. Pierce Brosnan is trying his absolute best and it’s certainly watchable in a campy way but is nowhere near memorable.
22. The Dark Half (1993)
George A. Romero collaborates with King again in 1993’s The Dark Half. It follows a successful author writing serious books under his own name and pulp money-makers under the pseudonym ‘George Stark’. When he gets blackmailed by someone who knows his secret, he buries his alter ego, but the alter ego has other ideas. King states this film is part autobiographical and was inspired by the events that led him to revealing his own writing pseudonym of ‘Richard Bachman’. It’s safe to say King’s personal story is much more interesting than this fictitious one.
21. Pet Semetary (1989)
Onto a Stephen King classic now, and a film responsible for kids losing numerous spelling bees. King once mentioned that this is the only novel he wrote that really scared him and it’s a shame that the film is unable to live up to that potential. The original story seems well suited to a novel but needs those changes to make it work on film. Unfortunately, King requiring his screenplay to be followed rigorously and constantly being present on film lacks the key component of what makes a lot of adaptations work.
20. Cujo (1983)
Most people love a good friendly woofer, especially a St. Bernard, but what if that dog contracted rabies? And what if it conducted a reign of terror on a small town? Using friendly pets as the epitome of evil usually works in the build up to something greater, but when they’re the antagonist, it doesn’t work as well. Cujo has some interesting moments that stand out compared to a lot of other King movies, but this is still one to forget.
19. Needful Things (1993)
Needful Things is able to boast one of the best leading duos in the likes of Max von Sydow and Ed Harris. Both of them are able to bring their a-game to a story where a mysterious new shop opens in a small town which stocks the deepest desires of each shopper, but every item comes with a heavy price. Its concept is so promising that even Rick & Morty spoofed it as a plot point for one of their episodes. It tries to say something about society, but in the end it’s as hollow as that clown movie.
18. Firestarter (1984)
Following her E.T. fame, Drew Barrymore leads the way in Firestarter, a film about a couple who gain telekinetic abilities in a medical experiment, then subsequently have a child who is pyrokinetic. Martin Sheen and George C. Scott also star in this culmination of horror, action and sci-fi. It ends up falling flat towards the end but it’s one of the few King movies that appears to be making an effort.
17. It: Chapter Two (2019)
Andy Muschietti had a lot of work to do, living up to the expectations he had gained from his predecessor film It in 2017, now the highest grossing horror film of all time. With its whopping 169-minute runtime, it’s fair to say the film does things right and things wrong. The casting is probably the best thing about it, Bill Hader stealing the show completely. But what lets this film down is the elongated middle act, where it is the same sequence for each character repeated six times in a row. Its repetitiveness becomes a bore and by the time you get to the final encounter, you’re just wanting to pee.
16. Pet Semetary (2019)
Some people may have forgotten but this remake also came out this year. The look of Pet Semetary is pure ugliness, looking like any other cliché modern horror. But the choice of changing the casualty to the older sister rather than the younger brother is the saving grace of this film. It’s still laughable at times, but somewhat more pragmatic. John Lithgow keeps you interested whilst the usual ‘slow-motion shots to use in a trailer that have no relatability to the final film’ play on.
15. In the Tall Grass (2019)
Another 2019 release to complete the mid-way point of this ranking. Vincenzo Natali brings his experience of directing Cube to a Stephen King story by… well making Cube but in a field of tall grass. It’s one of those that keep you second guessing, trying to pull twists and turns that will inevitably lead to a fulfilling conclusion, but the conclusion isn’t that fulfilling, making the film beforehand feel like a waste of time. Also, it may be no fault of the film’s own but due to it being a Netflix release, but I could hardly see any of it on my television due to it being too dark.
14. Children of the Corn (1984)
Its story may be remembered more for featuring in Treehouse of Horror, but Children of the Corn is one of those King stories that just appears to work. A religious cult of children believing everyone over the age of nineteen must be killed, including themselves, is a horrifying concept, especially when one of the members is so open to being sacrificed. It’s cheesy at times but features a well-cast ensemble, including a young Linda Hamilton during the same year that The Terminator would be released.
13. 1922 (2017)
It seems King has a good rapport with the executives at Netflix, this being the second of three features all ranking in the top half of this list. Netflix sure know the right people to hire and the right style to go for with these smaller stories. Thomas Jane plays a farmer conspiring to murder his wife for financial gain, convincing his teenage son to help. It’s not world-ending but it manages to get into the psyche of the father and son, the most important aspect that makes this film work.
12. Cat’s Eye (1985)
Stephen King once again wrote the screenplay for this anthology story of three tales all linked to a stray cat. It features Drew Barrymore again, this time needing protection from an evil troll, as well as James Woods playing a man trying to quit smoking by any means necessary. Similar to Creepshow, some stories stand out more than others. Whilst Creepshow 2 redeemed itself towards the end, Cat’s Eye slowly falls downhill after a fast start. The ending is full blown, possibly intentional comedy as the cat fights the evil troll to the death.
11. Creepshow (1982)
The last anthology film to feature on this list, Romero directs five tales based on the horror comic books of the 1950s, with King writing the screenplay once more. Some of the stories are flat out bad whilst some would be terrifyingly great short stories. The best segment being ‘Something to Tide You Over’ where Leslie Nielsen plays a vengeful husband burying his wife and her lover up to their necks on the beach, only to face terrible consequences. It’s also crazy to note that this film spent $175,000 on cockroaches.
10. The Mist (2007)
If anyone knows how to adapt a Stephen King story, it’s Frank Darabont. Providing some of the greatest films from the 90s with The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, he came back to write and direct The Mist in 2007. Once again, Thomas Jane is the leading man, after a freak storm unleashes a mist containing unknown creatures inside, David (Jane) and his son billy take refuge in a local supermarket with other inhabitants from the town. Although the film sets up the idea of a hidden monster being the scare-factor here, it’s really how humans deal with these situations and how the most selfish and blind thrive. A scene in this film featuring a soldier being taken against his will to fight the fog is one of the greatest scenes in any Stephen King film.
9. 1408 (2007)
Before the embarrassment of Cell, Cusack and Jackson co-starred in a much more successful Stephen King movie. Cusack plays a writer specialising in debunking paranormal occurrences, and his latest inquisition comes in the form of room 1408 in the Dolphin Hotel. Jackson plays the hotel manager who pleads with Cusack to stay away from that fabled room, noting the various incidents that have happened inside those walls. For a brief period it’s terrifying, and then it moves towards to pure surrealism. It’s also cursed with three different endings: a theatrical, alternate and director’s – with only the alternate being widely liked.
8. Christine (1983)
What happens when unstoppable forces collaborate? We get Christine. John Carpenter, a man who belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Horror, directed the story of a possessed Plymouth Fury hell bent on revenge, whilst also turning the student who owns it against his friends and family. A possessed car is an idea that should stay in the 80s, but Carpenter handles it well and provides one of the best King adaptations around. Although shot in the same neighbourhood as Halloween, it fails to achieve great status like Carpenter’s other work.
7. It (2017)
Let’s face it, almost everyone is either terrified of or creeped out by clowns. The 1990 miniseries holds a special place in many horror fans hearts, which led to worry and reluctance when a remake was announced. Fortunately, this remake elevated what Tim Curry and that cast were able to achieve and has probably altered the way horror films are now marketed, after the films record-breaking box-office run. The cast are phenomenal and are sure to provide some stars of the future. Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise is nightmare-inducing. Albeit a few too many jump scares, the film was a break-out hit.
6. The Dead Zone (1983)
In the same year Carpenter took to Christine, David Cronenberg also directed the adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, taking a more personal look at a man who discovers he has a psychic ability after he awakens from a coma. Christopher Walken delivers one of the best performances of his career and the film is able to juggle interesting motives and themes: The Manchurian Candidate through horror-tinted glass. This is the first story to take place in the fictional town of Castle Rock and is still one of the best.
5. The Night Flier (1997)
Time for the hot take of the ranking, that the critically-panned The Night Flier is actually one of the best Stephen King films around. A modern noir following a reporter on the trail of a vampiric murderer who travels by plane, it’s so wildly different to any other King work, which makes it stand out all the more so. It may lose itself at times, but the ending is truly satisfying as we finally see the vampire face to face with the reporter. Mark Pavia has only directed a low-to-no budget 2016 horror film since The Night Flier, but his work on here should be truly appreciated. He had only thirty days to shoot the film and actually was able to finish a day early.
4. Misery (1990)
Another Stephen King film, another story focusing on a writer questioning his morals. A lot of King’s work is semi-autobiographical, so what does it say about his fans after he had written Misery? The fictitious writer in question is seeking to kill off his beloved franchise character in order to write more ‘serious’ material. However, on the way home from completing this book, he is critically injured in a crash and is rescued by former nurse Annie Wilkes, his number one fan. When she reads what he has in store for her favourite novels, her reaction leaves him shattered. It may not entirely be a horror film, but if you’ve seen the movie there are definitely some images you’ll never be able to forget.
3. Gerald’s Game (2017)
Expectations are riding high on Doctor Sleep when director Mike Flanagan’s other King adaptation sits third on this list. Gerald’s Game is not just a true to its roots as an adaptation but is a great look at something Flanagan and King cover a lot in their work: childhood trauma. Jessie (Carla Gugino) must fight to survive when her husband dies unexpectedly, leaving her handcuffed to their bed frame during an attempt to spice up their marriage. It’s a fantastic job by Flanagan to keep his audience interested when the most part of the 103 minutes is set entirely in one room with a character who physically cannot move.
2. Carrie (1976)
We travel back to the first ever Stephen King adaptation now, in Brian De Palma’s Carrie. A shy, friendless teenage girl, sheltered by her domineering mother, unleashes her telekinetic powers after being humiliated by her classmates at her senior prom. The plot makes it seem like you’re just waiting for the ‘oh my God’ moment to kick in, but De Palma brings such elegance to this story, accompanied by Sissy Spacek’s portrayal of Carrie. The film also feature a young John Travolta and is a must-watch for any horror fan.
1.The Shining (1980)
What else but The Shining? Stephen King may absolutely hate this story, but Stanley Kubrick provided us with one of the best horror films of all time. It’s hard to get the scary from page to screen to work, but Kubrick has made a two-and-a-half-hour nightmare with some of the creepiest images around, still being spoofed and referenced almost 40 years on. It’s a masterclass from everyone involved; Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall give the best performances of their careers, all accompanied by one of the greatest music themes around. From start to finish you’re nowhere but encased in the Overlook Hotel, an isolated refuge where a family spends the winter caretaking, with the father hoping to write his next novel. But there’s a presence at the Overlook which is unlike any other, and it’s up to the psychic son to understand and fight off these entities from the past and future.
It’s safe to say Mike Flanagan has his work cut out for him on October 31st; not only does he need to live up to his own work after Gerald’s Game and The Haunting of Hill House, one of the most popular Netflix shows of the last few years, he’s also going against The Shining, the colossal giant of horror. It’s certainly going to be something worth talking about, and hopefully will earn a place high on this list. Shine on, you crazy diamonds.