Sunday, September 15, 2013

Top 13 Stephen King Movies

Recently I came across a terrific YouTube series by NecroVMX called Stephen King - 28 Reviews Later.  In it he reviewed one Stephen King movie a day for an entire February.  In each installment he compared and contrasted the film with the source material, and discussed where it worked and where it didn't.  I really enjoyed this feature.  The reviews are fucking hilarious, and even when I disagree with him, his command of the King Universe is strong enough that I can't help but respect the guy's opinion.  If you grew up on this stuff like I did, check it out.

Watching this series inspired me to put together my own King list.  Before I begin I'd like to make a few disclaimers.  First of all, this is a list of my personal favorites, not an objective list of great films.  For instance, I'll never argue that Stand By Me isn't a brilliant piece of art, but coming-of-age stories just aren't my thing, so it's not included.  Second, there's still a ton of King-related material that I haven't seen, such as Rose Red, Bag of Bones, Hearts in Atlantis, or the new 'Salem's Lot, so this can't be seen as an assessment of his entire filmography.  The thirteen on this list are the ones that I loved as a kid, the ones that inspired me, and the ones I still get a kick out of, for one reason or another.

Got all that?  All right, let's do this.

The Green Mile (1999)

The Green Mile is not only one of the most successful book adaptations in history, but one of the best damn movies ever made.  It only took thirty years, but with Frank Darabont we've finally found a director capable of pulling off the perfect King adaptation.  Translating a story from one medium into another is always a tricky business, because some things that work on page don't necessarily work on screen.  Darabont succeeds in every aspect of film that can be objectively measured, deviates from the source material conservatively and with wisdom, and most importantly, preserves the essence of the story.  My only complaint is that he hasn't done more.  I'd also like to mention that when I first read The Green Mile as it was being published as a serial novel, I thought to myself that if it were ever turned into a movie, Tom Hanks would make a perfect Paul Edgecomb. 

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Darabont's brilliant directorial debut.

The Mist (2007)

It's been noted that the best films based on King's work tend to be the ones where the supernatural element is absent, or at least kept to a minimum, ie., Stand By Me, Dolores Claiborne, Shawshank, and The Green Mile.  I was very happy when Darabont decided to turn his guns on one of King's straight-up horror stories.  The Mist is both a good film and a great horror flick.  The tension amongst the people trapped in the supermarket builds and builds, so when the monsters finally show up, it's like striking a match in a room with a gas leak.

Pet Sematary (1989)

NecroVMX gave this one a negative review.  Totally disagree!  Despite the occasional awkward performance or silly bit of dialogue, Mary Lambert succeeded in creating an atmosphere in this movie that's relentlessly creepy.  Even for people who haven't read the book, there's a cold sense of dread right from the opening credits, and you just know things are going to keep going from bad to worse.  The cast is more or less how I imagined them as I read the book, particularly Fred Gywnne as Jud.  Also, I have to admit something here: as a life-long horror fan, I don't scare easy.  The way Zelda is depicted in Rachel's dreams terrified the living fuck out of me. 

IT (1990)

OK, I have a soft spot for this one because I loved it so much as a kid.  If I'd first seen IT as an adult, I don't know how impressed I would have been.  The adult actors are average at best, the giant spider at the end looked ridiculous, and it only tells the Cliff Notes of the book.  But to be fair, Tommy Lee Wallace had his work cut out for him.  Translating an epic horror novel into a three-hour TV film is like shoving a lion through a cat-door, so I think he did all right under the circumstances.  The score is great, the kid actors are top-notch, and the overall atmosphere is deliciously creepy.  And really, no one can deny that Tim Curry's performance as Pennywise is anything short of terrifying.  He ruined clowns for an entire generation.  That alone has to be worth something.

The Stand (1994)

Despite Jamey Sheridan's unfortunate mullet, The Stand remains an example of how good a network TV miniseries can be.  Mick Garris, usually grossly inept, rises to the challenge of adapting one of the thickest (and most powerful) epics King has ever written, and does so with skill.  It's driven by fine performances by Gary Sinise, Rob Lowe, Molly Ringwald, Corin Nemic, and even King himself.  One thing I find particularly interesting is that the novel was written in the late '70s, but the film, despite being hardly changed from the source material, seems very much a product of the '90s.  It encapsulated the omnipresent millennial dread fueled by the spread of disease, rampant technology, the vulnerability of the planet, and distrust of American government, asking the most popular question of the day: just where the fuck is this all going?  The Stand might seem dated once in a while, but I wouldn't have wanted it made in any other decade.

Sometimes They Come Back (1991)

Highly underrated TV movie from the early '90s about dead greasers who come back from the grave to haunt a high school teacher.   Despite being a tad too sentimental in the last five minutes, it's wonderfully spooky, and works well within the confines of a network TV budget.  Also, fantastic corpse makeup.

Children of the Corn (1984)

I've noticed a lot of critics have a problem with this one, and I don't see why.  It's respectably scary.  The acting is horror-movie-passable.  It rocks a score as memorable as Psycho or Halloween.  Most interestingly, it achieves a sense of American Gothic through all its images of cornfields, crucifixes, murder by farm tools, and malicious rural children.  It's a classic, and it deserves its spot in the Pantheon.  Also, I'm very proud to say that I went to the same college as Linda Hamilton.  Or should I say, Dr. Linda Hamilton.

Sleepwalkers (1992)

This was the first R-rated movie I ever saw in the theater.  I remember feeling like the coolest 5th grader in the world when my mom took me see Sleepwalkers at the New Castle multiplex, and on a school night no less!  This is one of those movies where you can count yourself lucky if you saw it when you were too young to tell the difference between good acting and ridiculous acting.  I say that because the premise and story are actually pretty cool: mother and son human-cat shape-shifters who feed on the life force of virginal women move into small-town America and commence stalking their prey.  Most of the time you aren't sure if you're supposed to be rooting for the humans or the monsters.  For what it's worth, Mick Garris turned King's screenplay into a decent midnight movie.  He gets bonus points for including a graveyard scene with cameos by King, Tobe Hopper, and Clive Barker.

Golden Years (1991)

Mostly forgotten sci-fi series from the early '90s.  An elderly man begins growing younger after being exposed to regenerative chemicals in a lab explosion.  When The Shop (King's shadowy government agency) take an interest in him, he goes on the lamb with his wife and a sympathetic FBI agent.  The series had a bit of a slow start, but by the end of its seven-episode run it had gotten really interesting.  Tragically, it ended on a cliffhanger, and the show wasn't picked up for a second season.  Golden Years is in the same camp as Twin Peaks: there will never be a resolution, but the existing episodes are great for what they are.  Having said that, DON'T BUY THE DVD.  They cut out over two hours' worth of material, and slapped together a bullshit ending to bring the whole thing to a close.  If they ever release an uncut DVD, I'll be first in line.

'Salem's Lot (1979)

This early miniseries is campy yet earnest.  Back in those days, it was a given that the top names in horror would one day direct a King movie, and Tobe Hooper was one of the first to take a stab.  He's been quoted as saying, "A television movie does not have blood or violence. It has atmosphere which creates something you cannot escape - the reminder that our time is limited and all the accoutrements that go with it, such as the visuals."  If it was atmosphere he was going for, he succeeded.  He paints a picture of the entire community, and lets the viewer feel the evil spreading like a virus.  Also, some of the images, like the boy floating in the mist outside the window, are now stitched into the fabric of horror history.  One of the most important vampire movies ever made.

Silver Bullet (1985)

Another decent midnight movie.  Like in 'Salem's Lot, this one showcases the King trademark of a vividly realized sense of place.  Many of King's stories contain an almost Rockwellian nostalgia for small town America, yet are mixed with the unique kind of horrors that percolate in such a culture.  In this one, Cory Haim, sister Megan Follows, and nutjob uncle Gary Busey give us a likeable trio of protagonists.  But the main character in Silver Bullet is the community as a whole, and the story is about the devastation visited upon the community by the werewolf, referred to in Mary's opening monologue as "our town's long nightmare."  What I love about this movie is that the underlying tone is one of optimism.  In between the brutal killings, we see Haim riding his jet-powered wheelchair bike, climbing trees, and flying kites, as if to say that even in the worst of times, we can still have our fun.  In a scene where Busey gives his nephew a box of fireworks to compensate for the cancelled fair, he says, "It's not just the fireworks.  It's that no crazy shithead can stop the good guys, if you can dig that."  Right the fuck on, Gary.

Misery (1990)

I think I should mention here that I had a really hard time deciding if my last pick should go to Misery or Creepshow.  In fact it was such a close call that, while I was stuck in bed with a cold, I watched both back-to-back.  As much as King and Romero working together is on par with a lunar eclipse, I have to give the prize to Reiner.  As a King fan, you get used to seeing your favorite stories mangled by fifth-rate hacks.  On those rare occasions when they happen to fall into the hands of a craftsman, give the man his credit.  From the opening shot of the champagne bottle to the climactic battle-by-typewriter, this movie is a work of art.  William Goldman gets bonus points for incorporating the story arc of the sheriff to alleviate the tale's claustrophobia.  Nothing really needs to be said about the performances of James Caan and Kathy Bates that hasn't already been said a million times.  Their dynamic is simply one of the greatest and most iconic in film history.  Though I've gotta admit, I still think it woulda been scarier if she'd chopped his foot off.

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