The best and worst Stephen King movies, from the highs of The Shining to the lows of Lawnmower Man

There is no shortage of Stephen King adaptations, both good and bad. Critic Travis Johnson sorts through a huge body of work to pick five of the very best and five of the very worst. 

Maine man Stephen King is a bona fide master of horror, and by any measure one of the most popular authors ever to put ink to paper. Naturally, his body of work has proved too tempting a field for cinema to leave unharvested, and since Brian de Palma filmed King’s first novel, Carrie, in 1976, a staggering number of King’s stories have been adapted for both big screen and small.

They haven’t all been winners, though. So, with Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s new take on Pet Sematary about to crawl out of the grave and into your local cinema, we take a look at the best King flicks…and the worst.

The best

The Shining (1980)

Yes, King himself dislikes Stanley Kubrick’s take on his 1977 novel, but King is just plain wrong. The Shining is simply one of the best horror movies ever made, with the masterful Kubrick wringing every possible bloody drop of tension and dread out of the tale of writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson at his most Jack Nicholson), who descends into madness while wintering over at the haunted Overlook Hotel with his family.

As was his wont, Kubrick put everyone through sheer hell in his quest to make the ultimate haunted house movie – and it shows. There’s a queasy fragility to everyone on screen, most noticeably in Shelly Duvall’s tormented housewife, that counterbalances Kubrick’s pristine shot construction and clipped editing to unsettling effect. Yes, it’s completely different to the book on a thematic level. But it’s also better.

The Dead Zone (1983)

Canadian body horror specialist David Cronenberg calls the shots on this dour, precise, elegant film, which flings Christopher Walken’s schoolteacher, Johnny Smith, into a coma, only to pull him back years later with a suite of psychic powers.

With his life in tatters and his girlfriend (Brooke Adams) now married to another man, Johnny is more than a bit aimless – until he has a premonition that populist politician Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) will bring about nuclear Armageddon if allowed to gain the presidency. Cronenberg renders down King’s pulpy prose into a lean, clean and merciless film about fate, choice, and power. Featuring a rare heroic turn from Walken and some absolutely gripping set pieces, this is an icy cold gem that is ripe for rediscovery.

Stand by Me (1986)

Rob Reiner brings the best of King’s more-numerous-than-you’d-think non-horror works to the screen in this essential coming-of-age-tale.
Based on the novella “The Body”, Stand by Me follows young Geordie LaChance (Will Wheaton) and his three besties (River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell) as they trek out into the woods in the summer of ’58 to find the body of a missing kid. Trenchant, restrained, frequently hilarious, and possessed of a serious, somber core, it’s the best example of the pure humanism that exists at the heart of even King’s most terrifying tales.

The Mist (2007)

It’s King’s humanism that makes his horror stuff all the more effective – by the time the monsters come a-calling, we know the characters well enough to really feel every bite.

Frank Darabont, making his fourth King adaptation after The Woman in the Room, The Shawshank Redemption, and The Green Mile, deploys this trait to excellent effect in The Mist, which locks a disparate group of characters, including Thomas Jane’s everyman artist, Andre Braugher’s officious lawyer, and Marcia Gay Harden’s eminently hateable religious loon, in a small town supermarket, before unleashing a horde of Lovecraftian monsters upon them, concealed in the titular fogbank.

Controversially, Darabont ditched the book’s ending for a more downbeat conclusion – one that King himself applauded.

Carrie (1976)

Teen alienation is a cross-generational phenomenon, which is why Brian de Palma’s Carrie still resonates today – and the sheer filmmaking craft he brings to bear on the story puts it miles ahead of both the well-meaning remakes that came along in the 21st century.

Sissy Spacek is the titular high school outcast whose telekinetic powers come to full bloom just as the world, in the form of her religious nutter mother (Piper Laurie) and bullies played by John Travolta and Nancy Allen, brings the hammer down on her fragile psyche. It all comes to a head on a particularly apocalyptic prom night, as a publicly humiliated Carrie unleashes hell on the town that has scorned her.

The worst

Dreamcatcher (2003)

On paper, Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back) and William Goldman (The Princess Bride, Marathon Man) adapting King, with the former also directing, is rock solid. In reality, you wind up with this nigh-unwatchable mess.

King frequent flyer Thomas Jane co-stars with Jason Lee, Damian Lewis and Timothy Olyphant as four friends whose annual hunting trip is disrupted by an invasion of alien “Shit-weasels”. No, really – they’re parasites who enter and exit the human body via the back passage. Morgan Freeman and Tom Sizemore disgrace themselves as the shady military officers in charge of containing the event, while Donnie Wahlberg makes a strong play for Most Annoying Character Ever as the mentally disabled Duddits, who…

You know what? It defies description. Dreamcatcher is an absolute trainwreck of a film, worth watching once simply to fully comprehend its awfulness.

The Lawnmower Man (1992)

When is a Stephen King movie not a Stephen King movie? When the man himself successfully sues to have his name taken off the end product. King’s 1975 short story is about a gardener who is a kind of priest/avatar of the Greek god, Pan. Brett Leonard’s film version is about Pierce Brosnan’s amoral scientist using virtual reality to boost the IQ of Jeff Fahey’s mentally challenged handyman. That’s quite a leap.

In its feeble defense, The Lawnmower Man is goofy fun, as long as you ignore its tenuous King connection and any semblance of accuracy vis-à-vis the healing powers of VR.

Maximum Overdrive (1986)

King’s sole directorial credit! He later confessed to being out of his head on cocaine for the entire production, and it shows.

The usual mixed bag of characters, played by the likes of Emilio Estevez, future Lisa Simpson Yeardley Smith, future Commissioner Gordon Pat Hingle, and a host of familiar character actors, hole up at a gas station after all the machines in the world come to malevolent life and start murdering every human they can.

Tonally, Maximum Overdrive is all over the shop. And while there are joys to be had – a kick-arse soundtrack by AC/DC chief among them – the whole thing feels like…well, like it was made by a megalomaniac first time director in the grips of a monster coke binge. Funny, that.

Cell (2016)

One of King’s lesser books becomes one of King’s lesser films. A weird signal broadcast through mobile phones unleashes a low-key zombie-esque plague, and John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, and a handful of co-stars must make their way to safety. Cusack and Jackson did well in the 2007 King adaptation 1408 but don’t fare so good here, in a story that is essentially an old man railing against new-fangled technology, but filtered through 28 Days Later. One does wonder what Hostel director Eli Roth, who was originally slated to make Cell, would have done with the material, though.

Sometimes They Come Back (1991)

If we consider ed the sequels – and this thing spawned two – they would rate lower on the totem pole than this made-for-TV schlocker. But that would open us up to considering various Children of the Corn sequels (there have been nine!), the poorly conceived The Rage: Carrie 2, and various other ephemera that aren’t, strictly speaking, King adaptations. That way lies madness.

So let this curio, which sees Tim Matheson’s high school teacher menaced by the vengeful spirits of the bullies who tormented him as a kid, stand in the dock for all the films that constitute the “cheap Stephen King short story adaptation” cottage industry that kept so many journeyman film practitioners and performers employed through the VHS boom and beyond. Combining the twin dubious merits of familiarity and profitability while also being completely forgettable, these films comprise the overwhelming bulk of King films, so while we’re all celebrating It and the forthcoming Doctor Sleep, never forget there are three Mangler movies.