Thursday, December 19, 2013

"Fun is Fun, And Done is Done:" Top Thirteen Stephen King Adaptations

Stephen King, master of the modern horror story, and still reigning er, king of cinematic horror. His works don't always translate to the screen with the same power they had on the page, but when they do, they do. And that's what we're looking at today. For the purposes of the blog, we're only going with the horror movies derived from King's works. Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption are both incredible and have enough things said about them. From small town terrors from vampires to clowns, to isolated psychological terrors to psychic predictions you really don't want to be right. King's work covers every kind of horror there is, things in the darkness of the night and the darkness of the soul. Horrors from without and within. And when everything comes together on the screen (which as you can see from the wealth of adaptations, is not the norm, but I digress) it, well, shines.

13. It (1990). What's there to say about It? It's classic. Tim Curry's performance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown is a thing of legend. In truth, everything I could say about It at this point probably wouldn't be doing it any favors. Because when people talk about the great qualities of It (and rest assured, they are there) they are generally only talking about the first part of this two-part miniseries. The story centers on childhood nostalgia and confronting the (in this case literal) demons of the past. All of the flashbacks find themselves part of the first part of the miniseries, almost a self-contained story. As a result, the second part falls flat. But God, that first part. Pennywise makes himself known in memorable ways to each of the children and the young cast outshines their older counterparts.

12. Creepshow 2 (1987). One of the standards one can't help judge a Stephen King movie by is: how Maine does it look? Sometimes they fall very flat. Creepshow 2 gets major points for shooting in actual Maine. The opening puts us off to a wonderful start with the second chapter of the EC comics styled anthology, with Tom Savini giving a splendidly over-the-top performance as The Creep. He spins us three yarns: Old Chief Wood'n Head follows a vengeful wooden Indian who seeks to avenge the deaths of the shop owners who took care of him and return Indian treasure to its people. The second story, The Raft, is what most people seem to remember about this movie. It's based on the story of the same name from King's collection "Skeleton Crew." A bunch of horny teenagers swim out to a raft in the middle of the lake where they are picked off by a ravenous, mysterious oil slick and it's just as wonderful as it sounds. The third and final story "The Hitch-Hiker" was originally intended to be included in the first Creepshow, but time and budget saw it cut out and replaced by the "They're Creeping Up on You" segment that we'll get to later. Creepshow 2 is one of the last great 80's anthology movies, but it was not a bad note to go out on.

11. Silver Bullet (1985). Werewolf movies often seem harder to come by than great vampire or ghost movies. But the 80's, whether they're good or bad, they're entertaining. Luckily, Silver Bullet leans heavier on the good side. With a script by King himself and performances from Corey Haim and Gary Busey in their absolute prime. handicapped Marty, his sister, and his Uncle Red seek to put a stop to the werewolf plaguing their small town. The werewolf effects weren't exactly up to the quality of other films of the era, like The Howling or An American Werewolf in London. But still, better effects than the Howling sequels. So there's that.

10. Riding the Bullet (2004). Not, in fact, a sequel to Silver Bullet (although I would like one of those, movie Devil.) This is the best of Mick Garris's (thousands of) Stephen King adaptations. A young man has to confront death, the nature of it, and learn a thing or two about glorifying it as he has a hitch-hike that turns out to be very literally life and death while going to see his mother in the hospital after a potentially fatal stroke.

09. The Mist (2007). Frank Darabont shined with his versions of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. Here, he decided to try his hand at adapting some of Stephen King's actual horror stories. This is a very Lovecraftian story about people trapped in a supermarket, surrounded by very thick mist and the creatures inside of it, trying desperately to get inside. The controversy surrounding the ending of the movie has caught a lot of people to keep this off their lists, but it's a hell of a ballsy ending and King himself has said he thinks it's better.

08. Christine (1982). First of all, John Carpenter. Secondly, this is a great allegorical, unsettling love story about a boy and his first car. Nothing ever comes between Arnie and Christine. Not bullies, not his best friend, not his actual girlfriend. Arnie has power, has something of his own for the first time in his life, and he will let everyone die before he lets that power go. The car is a major character, somehow believably terrifying. Christine remains a great film in Carpenter's career, and an underrated classic.

07. The Shining (1980). What? The Shining isn't number one? Don't get me wrong. The Shining is a powerful, incredibly unsettling and atmospheric horror film but as a King adaptation it sort of falls flat. What started out as a creeping haunted house story about a man's trouble with his own past and his own doom built on false promises and succumbing to evil, becomes a story about a very unstable man in a delirious, shattered narration of a trapped mother and son trapped with a father who cannot be held on a leash much longer. Still powerful, still has great performances, and it still has fantastic imagery. But when a thousand people give you a thousand different meanings, then that means the meaning was lost in translation.

06. Pet Sematary (1989). Once again, major points for filming in Maine. And, major points for a horror movie directed by a woman (even rarer then than now). Also, a script by King. It would have been hard to mess this movie up, so luckily they didn't. It doesn't live up to the novel (does it ever?) But it's one of the most terrifying adaptations, for sure. A haunting rendition of "The Monkey's Paw" and what happens when you repress or refuse to accept death and its place in the world. As Jud Crandall so eloquently put it: "Sometimes dead is better."

05. 'Salem's Lot (1979). Tobe Hooper barely held onto his career after his debut masterpiece, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But every hit he had after that was worth it, and Salem's Lot shines the brightest. Still the most powerful miniseries adaptation. One of the best of King's novels is adapted into a story of small town secrets boiling to the surface, through vampires. Mr. Barlow, the Dracula figure of King's novel, is reimagined as a silent, stalking Nosferatu-type figure. The vampire effects, cheap as they were, still scare the living hell out of me.

04. Creepshow (1982). Creepshow, is simply put, a masterpiece. This is the only film on the list actually starring Stephen King himself, and good lord does he shine. The tagline is "The Most Fun You'll Ever Have Being Scared" and it is 100% right. With a script from King and the directing talents of George Romero, plus Tom Savini handling make-up effects. Each segment is delightful. We've got a mogul returning from the grave for his long overdue Father's Day cake, Stephen King as a lovable hick covered in alien moss, Leslie Nielsen burying Ted Danson in the sand and leaving him to drown followed briskly by Danson's revenge, a monster in a crate who's been stewing hungrily for a very long time, and a germ-obsessed business tycoon with a major bug problem.

03. The Dead Zone (1983). David Cronenberg's most accessible movie does not sacrifice anything visually. It's still a powerful, character-driven film and Christopher Walken gives the performance of his career. A man wakes up from a coma five years after an accident, and he wakes up with some extra talents. He can see what's going to happen to people. Either right away, or a little way down the line. He tries to be reclusive, but he can't stop helping people, and he learns to live with it. But when he shakes the hand of a man running for president, he sees the potential end of the world. A nuclear holocaust and a man crazy enough to bring it about. So the question he must ask himself: if you knew Hitler, and you knew what he was going to become, would you kill him?

02. Misery (1990). First of all, Kathy Bates. She gives an all-time great performance for which she received a well-deserved Academy Award as a reclusive woman who pulls her favorite writer out of a car crash and keeps him bed-ridden so that he can write a new book, just for her. Here, we see some of the author's fears come to light: the number one fan. And she, like the movie, is completely unforgettable.

01. Carrie (1976). The first is the best, but there's been plenty of great ones along the way. This is the perfect marriage of a great King story and stylish, quality film. Brian de Palma shows his skills as one of the all-time greats, and Sissy Spaceck and Piper Laurie give unforgettable performances as telekinetic, lonely, friendless Carrie White and her deranged fundamentalist mother, the true monster of the piece. The film unravels along with Carrie's psyche right up until the prom, when enough is finally enough and we are treated to one of the most lavish, colorful and iconic massacres in horror movie history.

So there you have it. That's my take on the best horror films from the minds who adapted the mind of Stephen King. Stay tuned for my list of worst Stephen King adaptations coming soon.

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