There are dozens (literally, I counted) of films, television movies, mini-series, short films, and even television series based on the works of Stephen King. So picking a list of just ten titles to claim as his “Top 10 Films” takes alot of thought and effort and decision making. Should I include the short films, many of which are hard to find and only limited audiences have ever seen? What about TV movies, or TV miniseries? Should they be included when they aren’t what the average person might consider “films?” (But I want to include them I do I do!) And should I be considering the films that aren’t really horror-related (though they do have a few creepy or horrifying elements?) when this list is going on a horror-themed site? At least two of the most brilliant of the Stephen King films aren’t really horror at all (but they are so very very good that they need to be included, right right?) It is a mind-numbingly difficult task really (well in some cases, its not like Children of the Corn part 73: Just Burn Down the Damn Cornfield Already* is giving me any trouble because I don’t even need to watch it to know its horrible), but one I was willing to accept and work through and I think I’ve managed to come up with a pretty smart list in the end. I DID decide to include films that weren’t necessarily “horror” thematically, and I DID decide to include mini-series because there were a couple of those that were exceptionally well done (and no I’m not talking about that travesty known as The Tommyknockers….ewww), but I DIDN’T include short films or TV series or sequels or episodes of established TV shows (like Twilight Zone) because that seemed to be taking things a little too far. And YES, I have seen every one of these films/etc and I’ve also read the books/novellas because Stephen King is The Man and I totally want to be him when I grow up.
10) Cujo (1983)
It isn’t so much the dog that is scary here, though a giant rabid bloodthirsty dog is pretty damn scary. Its the more intimate evil that grabs you with this movie. You have a mother and her very young child trapped in a car for hour after hour, with no food, no water, no air conditioning. Every time she tries to make an escape that giant killer dog attacks. So hour after hour she has to just sit and watch as her child grows sick and weak and as the time to rescue him leaks away. She becomes frantic, the child becomes comatose, and you the viewer are dragged along every moment of the emotionally exhausting ride.
9) Carrie (1976)
I was picked on in junior high school and there were several instances where I really really REALLY wished I had magic powers and could lock up all those bullies and burn them alive in the gymnasium (well I didn’t want to do anything quite that extreme but it was close, sort of close, maybe, anyways don’t judge me!). Lots of us were picked on in school and lots of us wished we could have uber cool super powers that would help us avenge ourselves. So Carrie wreaking her bloody violent vengeance makes all of us picked on kids squeal with delight (you can admit it, its okay) at least a little bit. Her going all psycho on the high school isn’t really the scary part of this film anyways. It is the scenes with her religious fanatic psychopathic mother that are truly cringe worthy.
8) Pet Sematary (1989)
Dead cats crawling around being stinky and screamy? Check. Giant old neighbor being babbley and probably kinda stinky? Check. Adorable tiny children brought back from the dead (so definitely stinky) to go on a bloody rampage of death and dismemberment? Check. If those items are on your list of necessary elements for a great horror film, this should meet all of your criteria and then some. Back in the 1980s horror films based on Stephen King works were done right, especially ones like this where you get all lured in with the darling family and the beautiful country house and the super cute kids and then suddenly everything becomes horrible and gory and sad and desperate and you wish it would just go back to the cute stuff again. (This also has a great theme song. I miss theme songs. They are a lost art form.)
7) Christine (1983)
I love that car. She is just about the sexiest old school automobile I’ve ever seen. Maybe its the giant fins or the shiny red paint job or those big bright head lights. The fact that she likes to kill people is almost secondary to just how beautiful that Plymouth Fury is. And like Pet Sematary and Cujo before it, this film is scary for reasons that are not the most obvious or in your face. Sure the killer supernatural car is pretty horrifying. But what is scarier is the idea that you can be best friends with someone, love them and rely on them your whole life, and they suddenly become a completely different person. A person who acts different, talks different, and thinks so differently that you kind of start to hate them.
6) It (1990)
This miniseries has a creepy clown in the sewers. A clown. In the sewers. Clown. Sewers. That should be enough said right there really. But I’ll go a bit further. When I was little I used to do this creepy impression of Pennywise the clown when walking past sewer ducts with my little sister. “We all float down here. You’ll float too!” She would scream and smack me and run away and I thought that was just about the funniest thing in the world. I figure that is a pretty good sign that something is really effective in its scariness – if you can freak your younger siblings out with it (after everything I did to that poor child she had an amazing “scare” tolerance after awhile). Tim Curry is awesome in any form (Dr. Frankenfurter! The Dark Lord! Mr. Body’s Butler!**) and he is brilliantly creepy as that clown. In the sewer. With balloons.
5) The Stand (1994)
Remember when a miniseries was a big national viewing event and everyone sat down each night to watch and experience the event together? Maybe not, it was a while ago. But that was how I first experienced The Stand, as an EVENT. My family gathered around the television each night to witness the devastating destruction of the world at the hands (do viruses have hands?) of a population decimating virus. We cheered for the good guy survivors as they valiantly tried to regroup and build a new and better world. We cheered for the bad guys as they re-opened Vegas and tried to build a dirtier and more Mad Max style new world (we were equal opportunity cheerers basically). The end kinda pissed me off but my sister seemed okay with it so we debated it for several days afterward. It truly was an EVENT, to not just be watched but experienced. I kinda miss things like that.
4) Stand by Me (1986)
Not only does this film have a really great story, but it stars little Wil Wheaton and little Corey Feldman and little fat Jerry O’Connell, and little River Phoenix and even little Keifer Sutherland. Its like a Tiger Beat time capsule of 80s crush icons. Based on an equally good novella called The Body, this is one of those Stephen King works that surprise people, because they aren’t so much about horror and scares and blood and guts and killer cars and creepy clowns. They are more about growing and discovering and becoming and living and existing in the real, sometimes dark and often intense, world. They prove that Stephen King isn’t just a commercial bestseller machine pumping out mindless stories for the masses. He is also a true artist with a definite gift for writing stories that speak on a very deep and human level.
3) The Green Mile (1999)
This film has many things going for it. Its well cast, well written, and based on well done source material. It also made me cry like a little girl for at least a half an hour until my eyes felt like they were going to fall out of my face, but I’m not sure that is really a ringing endorsement. While there are certainly some scary elements to this tale – it is based on death row and filled with murders and violent offenders, after all – it is more of a drama thematically than many of the other films on this list. The horror takes a backseat and lets the moments of hope, despair, comedy, love, and compassion take the driver’s seat.
2) Misery (1990)
Kathy Bates is a brilliant actress. She can be funny, she can be sweet, and she can be just about the scariest thing you are ever likely to see. And she manages to do all of those things, believably and whole-heartedly, in the space of just a few seconds. Here she is the ultimate deranged fan, a nurse with a penchant for suffering who will do anything to keep the object of her affections in her life just a little bit (a whole lot) longer. This film doesn’t rely on special effects or jump scenes or crazy monsters to scare the audience. Instead it takes very possible suspenseful situations, hops them up on a few steroids, and shoves them in your face in all of their horrifying glory. Like It, I base some of my opinion on the worthiness of this film on the reactions I have seen others have to it. When I tried watching with my BFF once upon a time, she freaked herself out so badly thinking things were going to happen (most of which never did) that she lost it about halfway through, screaming and yelling and stomping out of the room refusing to watch the rest of the film (and to this day I don’t know if she’s ever seen the whole thing). It was awesome.
1) The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
First, see all of my glowing comments about Stephen King for Stand by Me. Now multiply them by at least … five. This isn’t just a great film in the King oeuvre, this is a great film PERIOD (and it has the dozens – yep I counted again – of awards nominations to prove it). The main roles are beautifully played by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. They don’t just act parts here, they live these characters. They become them in such a way that when I read the novella it is based on (Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption – very good, check it out, I’ll wait) I can’t imagine anyone else as those people. This is a story about hope and despair and revenge and freedom. It is about being yourself no matter the consequences. About not letting anyone or any situation destroy who you are deep down. It is heartbreaking and heartwarming and all of those cliche and over used things that people say about great films. But in this case they are pretty damn true.
*Yeah I totally made that title up. But I could see it fitting in the rest of that exhaustingly overdone and horrible franchise.
**Rocky Horror Picture Show, Legend, Clue
EDITORS NOTE: I probably would have included – “The Shining”, “Salem’s Lot”, “Night Flier” and “Storm of the Century” – myself ;)
(and left off “Stand by Me“, “Cujo” and “The Green Mile”
Apt Pupil (1998)
Children of the Corn (1984)
The Dead Zone (1983)
Dolores Claiborne (1995)
Golden Years (1991)
Graveyard Shift (1990)
Hearts in Atlantis (2001)
Kingdom Hospital (2004)
Maximum Overdrive (1986)
Needful Things (1993)
Nightmares & Dreamscapes (2006)
Riding the Bullet (2004)
Rose Red (2002)
Salem’s Lot (2004)
Silver Bullet (1985)
Sometimes They Come Back (1991)
Storm of the Century (1999)
The Langoliers (1995)
The Mangler (1995)
The Mist (2007)
The Night Flier (1997)
The Running Man (1987)
The Shining (1980)
The Shining (1997)
The Tommyknockers (1993)
Top 10 Stephen King Films of All Time