“When we proceed to review things, persons, impressions, events and situations which are able to arouse in us a feeling of the uncanny in a particularly forcible and definite form, the first requirement is obviously to select a suitable example to start upon.” — Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny”
We sweat and laugh and scream here
‘Cause life is just a dream here
— “Welcome to My Nightmare,” Alice Cooper
That seems like the right way to open a piece about the five scariest Stephen King movies, doesn’t it? I haven’t cracked open the pages of a tome by the maestro of the macabre in a long time, but I have a faint recollection that at least some of his books open with that very distinctive style of quotation pairing; something lofty with something grungy, something high-and-mighty with something down dirty and low, something to make you think with something to make you tremble.
When King first rose to prominence as a writer of horror fiction, I also seem to recall that he was often insulted by critics who claimed he possessed an unsophisticated, or low-rent, style; King played along with that estimation, offering the self-deprecating assessment that he represented “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac with fries.” But there has been no author in the genre since Lovecraft and Poe whose works have proven so lasting, so influential, and so eagerly adapted for the cinema.
Maybe that point doesn’t exactly invalidate his critics’ claims, since a great many of them probably look down on the horror genre entirely…but it does mean that like a great many wildly popular artists whose successes are regularly scoffed at by the cognoscenti, Stephen King will probably have the last laugh—with the words that make up his tales of terror creeping their way along steadily though the bloodstream of time, snaking their way into the psyches of readers turning pages in the dark, for centuries longer than the moment his detractors’ words have already been long forgotten.
One of King’s great gifts as a storyteller has been to craft vivid, everyday characters and situations with which his readers can easily identify and fuse them to horrors both real and supernatural in origin. We can recognize the grief of losing a family pet, or imagine the sheer devastation a parent would feel at the death of their child; we can remember being sick enough that we became a prisoner in our bed; most all of us have, more than once, felt the tingle of some kind of time-displaced insight, be it the striking, dislodging feeling of déjà vu or the certainty that somehow, something we did or thought about actually predicted the future; you can probably connect to the feeling of being a stranger in a strange place; and you have almost certainly thought to yourself, as you fell into a rut and the steady slog of days saw you make no progress in your life, that “all work and no play” could eventually drive you mad.
Stephen King enthusiasts might already be hopping mad at how I veered away from book to movie for that last reference. I confess to a bit of pre-list-revealing trolling there, given how some people tend to knock the best Stephen King Movies for not being entirely faithful, whatever that might mean, to the Stephen King Books. That includes Stephen King, by the way. They’re his books, of course, so he’s easily forgiven the bias. But now that we’re (at long last) on the subject of Stephen King Movies, let’s get right down to it.
The success of horror in movies is a lot like the success of comedy in movies. In comedy, you really laugh, or you really don’t; in horror, it’s much the same—you’re really scared, or you’re really not. The following is a countdown of my five favorite movies based on Stephen King books, ranked according to how unnerving I find the experience of watching them. These are the King movies that give me the willies, keep me up at night, make me look over my shoulder, consider how close to the bone they might cut, and wonder how near the same unimaginable terrors might actually be at any given moment to my real life.
5. Pet Sematary
Pet Sematary was the first King book I ever read cover to cover; director Mary Lambert’s movie is one of the more underrated of the King adaptations, and captures a lot of what I remember liking about the novel. Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby do just fine in the lead roles, playing the couple that experiences haunting visions and horrible losses shortly after moving into their new Maine home; Miko Hughes is suitably adorable as their young son, if a bit too reminiscent of Child’s Play monster Chucky by the end. The dark heart of this movie, however, truly belongs to the late Fred Gwynne—portraying the eccentric neighbor who tells Midkiff’s character about the creepy power a nearby Indian burial ground possesses to restore the dead back to life.
Gwynne’s haunted face, folksy melancholy, and grievous baritone make him one of the signature stars of the Stephen King movie universe, and he steals the show with all the best lines in the film. After he intones the legend of the Micmacs’ life-giving cemetery to Midkiff’s character, he’s asked if anybody ever buried a human being there for the purposes of resurrection. Gwynne’s really funny—and yet still damn unsettling—response was quoted amongst my friends for years.
Misery the movie, I think I might like you even better than Misery the book!—and here is also one of those rare horror films that achieved mainstream respectability, by way of Kathy Bates winning the Academy Award for Best Actress. Director Rob Reiner’s production company Castle Rock Entertainment, as King fans well know, was named after the fictitious Maine town where the author sets many of his terror tales; Reiner helmed this film at perhaps the crest of his notoriety as a filmmaker. His warmup to Misery represented a positively amazing winning streak with This Is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, Stand By Me (his first go-round with a Stephen King property), The Princess Bride, and When Harry Met Sally…; this devilishly cruel thriller was then followed by a sterling adaptation of the play A Few Good Men.
That is an incredible run of good movies, floating from mockumentary to comedy to coming-of-age to fairy tale to horror to courtroom drama, but Misery represents a very special achievement indeed as most of the film is carried by only two people. James Caan is brilliantly cast as the writer desperate to ditch the long-running series of books that has made him a fortune but pigeonholed him as an artist. Oscar-winner Bates plays the nurse and “number one fan” who insists that he not give up the books that she has loved for so many years, holding Caan prisoner in her home after a car accident leaves him injured on the road nearby. Bates revels in a kind of mad theatricality that seems to pave the way for Anthony Hopkins’ equally out-there, award-winning turn as Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter the very next year in The Silence of the Lambs.
The story of Misery was more autobiographical for King than many of his other works, but the film (and the book) avoids the trap of narcissism and also comes off as a classy enterprise much in the same way that Hitchcock could elevate B-movie material to A-movie quality. Reiner takes the “Big Mac and fries” and turns it into a fillet mignon of fright.
3. The Dead Zone
Every day here at MovieFanFare, I go to the Movie Trailer of the Day page and put up a new movie trailer. On Thursday, June 11, out of the thousands and thousands of available titles I might have chosen, I decided to put up the trailer for Taste the Blood of Dracula—and about 10 minutes later, the news broke that Christopher Lee had passed away. Boy, now there was a coincidence, right? But wait:
The following day, Friday: My article about the George C. Scott movie Rage is posted. The 1972 film tells the story of a man who essentially becomes a domestic terrorist—shooting cops and blowing things up—after he learns the government has been trying to conceal the facts surrounding a nerve gas accident that killed his young son. In the article, I said the film “is a movie of this very moment if any movie is.” The very next morning, a man in Dallas put himself in an armored van he said was loaded with explosives and started shooting at cops for “taking away” his son.
OK, so, spoooooooooo-ky…..yes?
If I really believed in psychic hoo-ha of any kind, yes, that would be spooky. I don’t, but when those weirdo coincidences happen one on top of the other, even the most level-headed folks can let their minds wander into entertaining unreason, if only to indulge themselves in the pleasures of the uncanny. One of the essential appeals of The Dead Zone, indeed, is that the gift/curse given to Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken)—an ability to see into the future after a car accident leaves him in a coma for years—is made to seem perfectly plausible to us. This film, while it has elements of the supernatural, plays more as a grand tragedy—an effective sculpting of genres that director David Cronenberg would repeat three years later when he brought unexpected gravitas to a remake of The Fly.
2. Salem’s Lot
Given the explosion of horror-themed television today—your Dexters, Walking Deads, True Bloods, and so on—you’d think we’d be living in a Golden Age of small-screen terror. I’m not sure I’d agree. Yes, call me an old fogey and a hypocrite for engaging in the ol’ “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” gripe when so often I rail against it, but my feeling is that the chillers made for the small screen felt a lot more potent back then, if only because of their relative scarcity.
Having seen so very many horror films over so many years, I’m one jaded viewer. I realize just now that, here we are at #2 on the Five Scariest Stephen King Movies list, and I’ve only just now arrived at the first one that I can honestly say still kind of genuinely gives me the creeps. Oh, I absolutely love Pet Sematary—it gives me the same delicious enjoyment revisiting an old Universal horror movie might; Misery is a ghoulish good time, but I find that my satisfaction with it comes more from admiration for its actorly feats and the director’s good taste; the bleakness of The Dead Zone certainly unsettles, but it’s the desperate sadness of Johnny’s self-sacrifice that sticks with me.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot, though—even though it is perhaps the most “unrealistic” of the bunch—sits this high on my ranking because the images and sounds I most associate with this made-for-TV chiller can still rattle me when the lights go out. From James Mason’s elegant menace to the way that creepy, smiling vampire kid floats around outside, to seeing comic actor Fred Willard with a shotgun held to his head, to the way gravedigger Geoffrey Lewis meets his end, to the ugly shrieks that erupt from Reggie Nalder’s Nosferatu-esque bloodsucker, this movie never fails to restore me to that state horror aficionados treasure—feeling like a child wigged out by things going bump in the night.
1. The Shining
With apologies to King, who will forever disagree: For me, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is the finest, scariest movie ever made from his many, many books. Despite—or perhaps in some cases because of—its many departures from the source material, Kubrick’s movie stands alone in its ability to instill feelings of unearthly dread that echo the experience of reading King. We are less passive in our watching of The Shining than we are in our viewing of most other horror movies, and certainly all other horror movies based on King material.
The famous architecture of the cinematography provides symmetries that both comfort and disturb; the heightened performances of both Jack Nicholson and Shelly Duvall, far from being ham-fisted or jokey, are perched at the extremities of the kinds of fear and madness the events of the movie would no doubt inspire. It’s hard even to simply listen to the movie’s soundtrack album without sensing it might have been created by way of some lurid transaction with emissaries of the damned.
The film’s mysteries-within-mysteries even inspired a must-see documentary that will, if nothing else, demonstrate that decades later its secrets continue to fuel the passions of scholars, crackpots, and movie lovers. The release poster for The Shining—still one of the most uniquely designed of all one-sheets—crowed of its instant status as a “masterpiece of modern horror.” That the film lives on and on to inspire such heated disagreements among its admirers and detractors is, to me, evidence that the tagline was no idle boast.
To paraphrase Scatman Crothers’ doomed caretaker from the film—some Stephen King movies shine, and some don’t. These are the five scariest Stephen King movies that come to my mind whenever I want to conjure up the thrills guaranteed by close encounters with this Master of Horror.
Got a different list of your own? Indulge your love of the Scariest Stephen King movies in the comments, and enjoy being part of the kinds of conversations that will take place between classic movie fans forever…and ever…and ever.