Stephen King will forever be remembered first and foremost as an author, but the truth of the matter is that cinema has been a part of his career from basically the very beginning. His seminal novel, “Carrie,” was first published in 1974, and it was just a little over two-and-a-half years later that director Brian De Palma’s adaptation had its opening weekend in theaters. For as long as King has been writing books, Hollywood has been producing movies based on them.
The result of this marriage between medium and creative master has resulted in not just some of the scariest movies of all time, but also some of the scariest individual moments in cinema history. Some of them are not detailed facsimiles of what Stephen King originally put on the page, but his influence is never in question. Because they are all so different, and because multiple new adaptations are made every year, it’s really impossible to rank them all – but what we can still do is celebrate what we see as the best of the best.
So without further ado, here are the 13 scariest movie moments from Stephen King book adaptations:
Carrie’s Final Attack (Carrie)
Thanks to her telepathic abilities, Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is able to create a whole lot of chaos while taking revenge on those that have made her life totally miserable, but still there is something particularly special about the last scare of the movie, which has the effect of forcing your skeleton to leap out of your body. At first everything seems peaceful and serene, with survivor Sue Snell (Amy Irving) visiting the (albeit defiled) grave of her dead classmate, but then Carrie’s bloody arm reaches out from beneath the ground, and what’s cemented is one of the best scary moments in any Stephen King movie.
The Opening Massacre (Children Of The Corn)
Fritz Kiersch’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Children Of The Corn truly wastes no time getting right in to the scary bits – featuring its most horrific material right in the first scene. It’s set three years before the main events of the story, but it has the important job of telling the audience what exactly happened in Gatlin, Nebraska, and does so with some seriously violent action. There are few movies out there willing to go as far as to splash a child with a blood that comes as a result of a man having his hand fed into a meat slicer, not to mention all of the other various stabbings and poisonings that are executed.
Christine Rebuilds Herself (Christine)
As seen in John Carpenter’s Christine, a car can make for a pretty scary and formidable villain – particularly one that can highly influence the person who owns it – but you might also think that it would be pretty simple to defeat. After all, it’s a car, and there are many ways to kill a car. As seen towards the end of the movie, though, Christine is no ordinary car. Dennis (John Stockwell) and Leigh (Alexandra Paul) do a pretty damn good job beating the hell of the vehicle, even employing the use of a bulldozer, but it’s hard not to be totally freaked out for them when Stephen King’s haunted Chrysler is able to magically fix itself and continue its reign of terror.
Cujo Catches Donna (Cujo)
The scene where Cujo is able to catch Donna (Dee Wallace) out of the car, and then attack her as she gets back in, is really remarkable proof of movie magic. Reading the book, you’d think that the only way to film the dog attacks would be to actually use a rabid canine, and yet director Lewis Teague is able to stun and horrify with his adaptation of Cujo – with this particular scene standing out in memory. As though it’s not scary enough to watch Donna desperately try and push the titular beast far enough away so that she can close the car door, but the shrieks of terrified young Tad (Danny Pintauro) make the ordeal a thousand times more hellish.
Frank Dodd Takes His Own Life (The Dead Zone)
Of all the Stephen King characters that are killed in his stories, Frank Dodd is hardly one of the most sympathetic – what with him being a psychotic serial killer responsible for raping and strangling multiple women. That being said, it’s still pretty hard to watch the way in which he exists the mortal coin in David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone. Like the book, it’s ultimately death by suicide, but the film adaptation gets a bit more creative than the novel. While King just has Dodd shoot himself in the head, Cronenberg’s version goes an extra step by having the villain get into an empty bathtub with his clothes on and impale his face on a pair of scissors.
Jessie Slips Out Of Her Handcuffs (Gerald’s Game)
Human beings are capable of doing both remarkable and terrible things when they reach a particular point of desperation, and that fact very much drives what is truly the most nightmarish moment in Mike Flanagan’s brutally tense Gerald’s Game. Shattering a glass and using it to slice one’s own wrist isn’t something a person just does in every day circumstances, but in this story it is the act that stands between the protagonist and certain death. And not only is it brutal to watch Jessie try and use her own blood as lubricant while she tries to escape the handcuffs shackle her, but the fact that the skin on her hand practically comes off like a glove as a result is next-level horrifying.
Becky Is Nourished After Giving Birth (In The Tall Grass)
Vincenzo Natali’s In The Tall Grass is the most recently released Stephen King film, having only come out a few days ago, but it most definitely earns a spot on this list thanks to what happens with Becky (Laysla De Oliveira) and Ross (Patrick Wilson) in the movie's third act. Shortly after the heroine has given birth to her baby, she hallucinates her brother Cal (Avery Whitted) taking care of her, and nourishing her with natural food – but the reality is far more unthinkable and disgusting. It’s not grass and seeds she’s eating, but the body of her newborn. It’s a sequence that goes down very differently in the novella King co-wrote with his son, Joe Hill, but that does nothing to undercut its serious impact.
Pennywise Leaps From The Projector Screen (IT)
Part of the reason why the titular monster in Andy Muschietti’s IT is so terrifying is because it can really show up basically anywhere it wants in Derry, Maine – even a garage where a group of kids are plotting against him. The pacing in this scene is excellent, as slides flash by on the screen faster and faster until you realize what’s going on… but by then it’s too late. Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), with his teeth giant and fang like, is bursting of the screen and causing mass panic among The Losers Club (Jaden Martell, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Chosen Jacobs, Finn Wolfhard, Jacob Dylan Grazer, and Wyatt Oleff). It’s brilliantly scary moment in one of the best Stephen King movies.
The Death Of Adrian Mellon (IT Chapter Two)
Following the immense success of the first IT, Andy Muschietti found an excellent way to start in the action in IT Chapter Two with what is actually the first scene in Stephen King’s novel. The evil that haunts Derry manifests as more than just horrifying visions of what people fear, as it also persists as a virus that propagates hate. In the case here it’s an example of horrible homophobia, as the influence of It (Bill Skarsgard) leads to the beating and death of Adrian Mellon (Xavier Dolan). It’s not only impressively scary as an audience member putting yourself in the experience of the character, but also powerful when you reflect on how that kind of hatred exists everywhere in the world today.
Annie Wilkes Does Some Hobbling (Misery)
There is a nice long spell in the middle of Rob Reiner’s Misery where you think that author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is going to be okay. While communication with the outside world remains an issue, he finds a way to escape his locked room and move around the house – even able to surreptitiously acquire a knife that he keeps under the mattress. But he makes one mistake: facing a ceramic penguin the wrong way after bumping into it. For this, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) believes that he needs to be punished, and does so by executing one of the most gruesome, hard-to-watch moments in the history of the horror genre. It’s perhaps not quite as bad as what’s in Stephen King’s book, where Paul’s foot is actually cut off with an axe and his ankle is cauterized with a blowtorch, but there’s something about Annie swinging that sledgehammer that’s arguably more disturbing.
David Drayton’s Rash Decision (The Mist)
The scene in question here from Frank Darabont’s The Mist is a bit of an anomaly on this list, as what’s featured in the movie is completely different than what goes down in Stephen King’s book – but it’s also a case where the changes are an improvement on the source material. I am, of course, referring to the final scene of the film, where David Drayton (Thomas Jane) believes that he and his fellow survivors (Nathan Gamble, Jeffrey DeMunn, Frances Sternhagen, and Laurie Holden) are doomed, and decides to spare them a death being eaten by monsters. It’s bad enough that he doesn’t have enough bullets in his gun to also kill himself, but making things infinitely worse is the realization that holding on for just a few more minutes would have resulted in a miraculous military rescue.
Gage Attacks Judd (Pet Sematary)
You’d think that late 1980s movie making technology would have made it impossible for director Mary Lambert to effectively bring to life the third act of Stephen King’s brilliant novel Pet Sematary, but armed with some impressive creativity and a screenplay written by the horror master himself, the 1989 classic does just that. It’s true that certain shots of the young Gage Creed (Miko Hughes) attacking the elderly Judd Crandall (Fred Gwynne) use actual dolls, but that makes it no less scream-inducing when the toddler first slices his neighbors Achilles tendon with a scalpel, and then bites out his Adam’s apple.
All Work And No Play Makes Jack A Dull Boy (The Shining)
It’s not exactly disguised that Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is losing slowly his mind as he stays with his family at the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining – but the full extent of his insanity comes into sharp focus when Wendy (Shelley Duvall) discovers what he has been writing on while feverishly working at his typewriter for days. Sane people don’t typically find themselves typing “All Work And No Play Makes Jack A Dull Boy” hundreds of times, and it’s really the moment in the film where the audience gets a full grasp on Jack’s terrifying mental state. This is, of course, followed by one of cinema’s most iconic stair ascents, taken straight from Stephen King’s novel, as Wendy is confronted by her violently mad husband, and all of it is spine-tingling horror genius.
Which of these moments would you consider the scariest? Do you think there are any scenes we didn’t highlight that deserve mention? Hit the comments section below, and with Stephen King movies still regularly being made in Hollywood, you can be sure that you’ll find all of the latest updates about them here on CinemaBlend.
Your Daily Blend of Entertainment News
NJ native who calls LA home and lives in a Dreamatorium. A decade-plus CinemaBlend veteran who is endlessly enthusiastic about the career he’s dreamt of since seventh grade.