Stephen King, The Master of Horror – The 10 Best Horror Movie Adaptations of His Work

Since Stephen King published Carrie in 1974, the horror author has written about 65 novels alongside several collected works and screenplays. Dozens of big and small screen adaptations of King’s work have popped up since Carrie shocked filmgoers in 1976. Some talented filmmakers have worked on the Master of Horror’s material including Rob Reiner, Stanley Kubrick, Mike Flanagan, David Cronenberg, Frank Darabont, and John Carpenter. Sadly, many of these adaptations have been middling (The Dark Half) or outright bad (Graveyard Shift). But there’s been some classics as well, including the 10 movies listed below. Note that this list focuses on horror movie adaptations, so no Stand By Me or The Shawshank Redemption.

10 – Creepshow (1982)

Though anthology movies are inevitably hit and miss with their segments, Creepshow is a consistently fun homage to EC Comics and their tales of horror. Technically, Creepshow isn’t an adaptation of a Stephen King novel, short story, or novella – King penned the screenplay. And maybe it would be an overall better movie if you cut out the silly The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill, which also starred King. But director George A. Romero clearly had fun crafting some vintage, colorful horror. Both The Crate and Something to Tide You Over are classics that feel like something out of the original Tales From the Crypt. Still the opening segment, Father’s Day, stands out as the best of the bunch.

9 – Cujo (1983)

Many people will take issue with putting Cujo on this list at all. Some will cite the absence of Pet Sematary or The Mist. Take away the gut-punch of an ending and The Mist is a middling adaptation. And neither version of Pet Sematary is as good as their supporters believe. While Cujo is a flawed adaptation it’s also an effective and often relentless minimalist horror movie. Director Lewis Teague doesn’t quite mesh the novel’s parallel plots together and, as a result, Cujo feels disjointed. What we end up with are two different movies, with one of those movies being much better than the other. But when it’s not a family drama, this a monster movie about a big killer dog. The basic premise is a good one and Cujo becomes unbearably tense once it gets down to business.

8 – Christine (1983)

On one hand, Christine is a frustrating King adaptations that falls short of John Carpenter’s best work. Among its problems, Bill Phillips’ screenplay misses much of what made Christine one of King’s better novels. Miscasting and some flat performances don’t help. Yet too much here works so well to just dismiss this big screen treatment. Any time Christine is driving the action the movie clicks. Though he doesn’t always have a firm grasp of the material, Carpenter gets inventive and commits some visually impressive moments onto the screen. Both the scene of burning ‘Christine’ chasing down a victim and Moochie’s comeuppance in an alley are standouts. Moreover, Christine stands out as one of Carpenter’s better scores.

7 – Gerald’s Game (2017)

If The Stand, The Dark Tower, and It were challenging to adapt due to their massive scopes, Gerald’s Game presented the opposite problem. King’s story of a woman handcuffed to a cottage bed after her husband’s fatal heart attack seemed too ‘small’ for the big screen. In spite of this challenge, writer and director Mike Flanagan (Hush, The Haunting of Hill House, Midnight Mass) finds the unnerving ‘psychological’ in this psychological horror movie. Similar to his other work, Flanagan relies on atmosphere over jump scares. Contrary to expectation, Gerald’s Game also boasts some big themes that outstretch its limited setting. Add a huge performance from Carla Gugino and Gerald’s Game was a surprisingly good King adaptation.

6 – Salem’s Lot (1979)

If you’re old enough, you may remember the days before streaming platforms and specialty channels when made-for-television movies were a different breed. Most of those movies weren’t particularly good. But Tobe Hooper’s (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) adaptation of Salem’s Lot is a classic. Some fans of the early King novel took issue with the onscreen portrayal of the vampire, Barlow. Nevertheless, Salem’s Lot presents some of the scariest incarnations of vampires in film backed by Harry Sukman’s creepy and nostalgic score. That floating bedroom scene – filmed in-reverse – is still the stuff of nightmares. Throw in a stacked cast of familiar faces anchored by James Mason’s stoic turn and Salem’s Lot is one of the best Stephen King adaptations.

5 – The Dead Zone (1983)

Despite the presence of Christopher Walken in front of the camera and David Cronenberg behind it, The Dead Zone is kind of a forgotten Stephen King adaptation. With The Dead Zone, Cronenberg eschews body horror in favor of an effective chiller that exhibits a lot of restraint. King’s story of high school teacher Johnny Smith waking from a coma only to discover he can see the future may actually be more relevant today. Johnny’s psychic flashes, particularly his first one, are both haunting and unnerving. Both Walken and Martin Sheen are fantastic in their respective roles. And the finale evokes some genuine pathos. Though it has has somewhat slipped into anonymity, The Dead Zone remains one of the better Stephen King adaptations out there and is worth re-discovering.

4 – Misery (1990)

Long before Star Wars fanboys and the ‘Restore the Snyderverse’ Reddit forums, Annie Wilkes was the original toxic fan. Aside from its prescient story, Misery was a winning box office Stephen King adaptation that earned Kathy Bates a deserving Best Actress Oscar. While William Goldman’s screenplay makes some changes to the novel, director Rob Reiner knows where to find the scares out of the isolated, wintery setting. Specifically, Reiner expertly mixes taut, edge-of-your-seat suspense and great jump scares. James Caan is at his cantankerous best as novelist Paul Sheldon. By the time you’re done watching Misery, you’ll never look at a sledgehammer the same way again.

3 – It (2017)

Stephen King’s massive generation-spanning novel, It, was always going to be challenging to adapt. While it has fans, the made-for-television miniseries from 1990 isn’t really that good with the exception of Tim Curry’s Pennywise performance. Flashforward 27 years and Andy Muschietti (Mama) nailed the novel … or at least half of it. On one hand, the 2017 theatrically released It benefits from a bigger budget and more freedom afforded by an R-rating. Yet Muschietti also demonstrates a better grasp of what made King’s novel terrifying. This version brings childhood nightmares to vivid life. Curry left big shoes to fill, but Bill Skarsgård more than capably transforms himself into a terrifying Pennywise. In addition, the young cast better fills the roles than the 1990 version where miscasting was an issue. Too bad It Chapter Two underwhelmed.

2 – Carrie (1976)

Carrie was King’s first publish novel – it also holds the distinction of being the first of his work to get adapted to the big screen. To date, an ill-advised, belated sequel and two remakes have tried to replicate Brian De Palma’s ‘lightning in a bottle’. Each of these efforts failed. Simply put, Carrie is a stylish, frightening interpretation of King’s work that captures the pains – and horror – of adolescence. In addition to Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie’s Oscar-nominated performances, the cast is filled with familiar faces and rising stars. Nearly 50 years late, the prom scene remains one of the best choregraphed horror moments. And that final jump scare will get you every time.

1 – The Shining (1980)

Yes, there’s a certain amount of irony to listing Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining at Number 1. King himself has made it no secret that he dislikes Kubrick’s vision, In fact, in the 1990s, King turned to a regular adaptor of his work, Mick Garris, to re-imagine his classic novel as a miniseries. To say it fell short would be an understatement. Maybe Kubrick missed some of the point of the novel. Maybe Jack Torrance’s descent into madness happens too quickly. Or perhaps Jack Nicholson just plays the character as ‘crazy’ straight out of the gate. Regardless The Shining is a haunting masterpiece of horror that stands among the greatest movies in the genre. Besides Nicholson’s performance is just too much fun to complain about how fast he succumbs to The Overlook Hotel. It’s worth it just for the ‘Here’s Johnny’ scene.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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