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Stephen King is an undisputed master of American literature, especially when it comes to the worlds of horror and suspense. When you get to his level of prolific fright making, the scares can come pretty fast and furiously, as evidenced in King’s very own portfolio of masterworks. As one might guess, that leads to a lot of potential for film adaptations to bring some of these iconic moments from King’s pages to proper life on the silver screen.
With last weekend’s unveiling of Pet Sematary, as well as this September’s return to Derry for IT: Chapter 2, it seems like a good time to revisit some of the most notable versions of Stephen King’s work hitting the big screen. While they span the realms of reality, as well as that of the supernatural, they all have one thing in common: each one of them is absolutely bone chilling, and ready to creep you out.
It’s true that Stephen King has gone on record more than once as to not being a fan of Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of The Shining. But what’s interesting about this particular case of an author disregarding the movie version of one of their books is the fact that fans still pretty much rally behind this film. While it may not be the note-for-note story that King had in mind, it’s still a film that speaks to the darker sensibilities of the author and his work. And with an adaptation of the sequel, Doctor Sleep, heading our way in September, this will be required viewing for anyone who wants a good scare, and the background needed to get even more into the continuing adventures of Danny Torrance.
Netflix seems to be a good place to find the latest and greatest in horror in the streaming realm, and the streaming service has even gotten a couple of Stephen King adaptations to prove it! The first one we’ll mention is director Mike Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game, which stars Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood. With the titular Gerald dropping dead of a heart attack, the film focuses mostly on his wife, Jessie, who is handcuffed to the bed of their secluded cabin. What was supposed to be a harmless sex game turns into a battle of sanity and survival, and Flanagan jumps between the worlds of reality and fantasy in such a way that they blend into a cohesive and very mind-bending whole.
Within the heart of director Rob Reiner’s films from the 1990s is one of Stephen King’s most frightening stories grounded in reality: Misery. It’s Reiner’s hand that guided Kathy Bates to her Academy Award win for her portrayal of Annie Wilkes, the antagonist at the heart of the film, and just on her performance alone this film has quite a head of steam. But when taking the full picture into account, including James Caan’s frightened captive, and the suspense surrounding whether or not he’ll escape his the clutches of his biggest/most obsessed fan, it’s clearly a fantastic adaptation of a nightmare that only King could dream up on the page. Either way, the folks behind Season 2 of Castle Rock may want to revisit this one, just to make sure they nail Annie's origin story in the new season.
Sometimes, in rare cases like writer/director Frank Darabont’s adaptation of The Mist, an ending presents itself that ties things together even better than the source material did. So it was a surprise to even Stephen King himself when Darabont not only crafted a movie that captured the dire straits of the characters who find themselves facing creatures of Lovecraftian proportions, it also gave the pre-existing story a more modern context of fear. Then, in the final five minutes, everything was nailed shut with one of the most jaw-dropping endings ever seen on film, sealing this film’s fate as a storied adaptation for the ages.
If you’re looking for the source of a particular menace in the Stephen King universe, there are two places you can usually look to find the root: the delusions of humanity, or the supernatural forces trying to control them. Both seem to have a place at the table in Netflix's 1922, which is drawn from the novella of the same name in King’s Full Dark, No Stars collection of tales. What starts as a murder in the name of self-preservation for Thomas Jane’s Wilfred James and his son Henry quickly turns into a spiraling chain of events that seem to be guided by the icy hands of fate, leading to one darker twist of the plot after the other.
Anyone's high school years could probably qualify as their own personal hell. But very few have experienced the actual hell that Carrie White went through while dealing with the pressures of both adolescence and telekinesis. A slow burn with a sympathetic protagonist that only breaks bad towards the end of her story, Carrie has the prom to end all proms in its third act. If you only know this Brian DePalma film for that particular bloodbath, you only know part of the story. Seeing this young girl learn how to use her powers and eventually turn them against all who tormented her takes such a natural path to the more fantastical elements of its conclusion that it's just as chilling today as it was when it came out.
The Dead Zone
There are quite a few creatures and otherworldly powers that Stephen King has dabbled with endowing his characters with. But in terms of The Dead Zone, King runs with an old favorite when it comes to main character Johnny Smith’s particular abilities. Given the power to see into the future, Christopher Walken’s protagonist starts off as a crime fighter helping out with the solving of local crimes. But as time goes on, and Johnny begins to curse his gifts, the stakes raise once he stumbles upon something so frightening, he’s shocked into action. The very future that director David Cronenberg’s film shows as disaster Johnny is trying to avoid is still referenced to this day as one of the most frightening scenarios that scares viewers to this very day.
Scary animals are definitely a specialty in the world of Stephen King, as Pet Sematary seems to have left its mark on the world twice over, thanks to Church the Cat’s demonic presence. However, there’s an even more menacing pet in the King pantheon, and his name is Cujo. A St. Bernard that starts as a cuddly, adorable furball, Cujo turns into a mad killing machine one he’s infected by a rabies carrying bat. Unfortunately for the Trenton family, by the time they move into the town of Castle Rock, that more murderous side of the pooch rears its ugly head, terrorizing them with a relentless bloodlust. You might want to think about staying away from dogs for a couple of days after watching this one.
Throughout this entire catalog of fear through the eyes of Stephen King, even the most grounded examples have had a supernatural tint to their story. But in our final example, Apt Pupil, the only evil present is that of humanity itself. Specifically, the story of Ian McKellen’s Nazi neighbor in hiding, and the young man obsessed with his deeds during the war. With the late Brad Renfro’s performance as teen instigator Todd complimenting McKellen’s slow descent into old, sinister habits, the film explores the very real evils that took place during the reign of the Third Reich, and the threat they pose to any future generations who forget the lessons they taught the world. It’s a very human message, in a very horrifying movie.
While these are the best examples of chilling Stephen King films we can think of at the moment, there are bound to be a couple we may have missed. If you're so inclined, please share with us what you feel are the creepiest and most unsettling movies from King's library that didn't make the cut. You just might scare us with the results! And before you go, check out our list of upcoming Stephen King films that just might be frightening audiences in the future. It'd be scary if you missed any of the fun to come.