Stephen King is one of those authors who, apparently, has never had a single moment of free time. As of the time I am writing this he has published over 50 novels and more short stories than you can shake a proverbial stick at, and his work has been adapted into award-winning feature films, TV series, mini-series and shorts on a damn near monthly basis for decades.
By now, even casual fans of Stephen King are probably aware of the most celebrated films on the author’s resumé. But although THE SHINING, MISERY, CARRIE, THE DEAD ZONE, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and plenty more are now considered to be classics, there are a lot of quality adaptations that haven’t earned their proper due. And that’s what we’re here to try to fix today.
The following Stephen King films were barely released, or came out at a time when audiences were so inundated with King adaptations that they barely had a chance of making an impression. Some of them were panned, some merely ignored, but all of them are worth watching, and all of them deserve more fans than they currently have. So check them out for yourself, and spread the good word!
As far as Stephen King motion picture anthologies go, CREEPSHOW has all the street cred, but CAT’S EYE deserves a closer look. The film features three dynamite tales of terror with impressive casts and clever concepts. The only thing keeping it from greatness is the framing device – the cat – which doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. The cat is barely involved in two of the installments, making the whole anthology concept feel a bit arbitrary, even the pieces are great.
So join James Woods as he goes to unreasonable lengths to quit smoking, and follow Robert Hays up on a ledge as he pays the ultimate price for adultery. And in the film’s classic finale, see what happens when a little demon tries to steal young Drew Barrymore’s breath as she sleeps, and watch as the cat takes all the blame.
THE DARK HALF
Stephen King wrote several novels under the pseudonym “Richard Bachman” in the late 1970s and early 1980s, only to be outed by a clever reader in 1985. King very famously “killed” Richard Bachman that very same year, and later wrote a book about an author who wrote under a different name, whose alternate persona refused to die. The book was THE DARK HALF, and it spawned a rock solid adaptation in 1993.
Directed by King’s CREEPSHOW collaborator George Romero, THE DARK HALF stars Timothy Hutton as the author and also the author’s alter ego, a dangerous maniac named George Stark. It’s a slick production with some memorable, unexpected turns (although the ending goes a little too nuts for its own good). The film was left on the shelf when the production company, Orion, declared bankruptcy. THE DARK HALF finally came out two years later than it was supposed to, to a tepid response.
But watch this one again, now, and you’ll find a smartly acted, weird and creepy tale that obviously had a deeper meaning to King himself. It’s not half bad. In fact, it’s mostly great!
One of the most notorious films in Stephen King’s filmography sounded like a sure thing on paper. DREAMCATCHER came from William Goldman, the screenwriter of MISERY, and Lawrence Kasdan, the director of THE BIG CHILL. It featured an all-star cast including Morgan Freeman, Timothy Olyphant, Damian Lewis, Jason Lee, Thomas Jane and Tom Sizemore. The only thing that could possibly go wrong is if Stephen King wrote the whole story under the influence of Oxycontin… which he did.
King wrote DREAMCATCHER while recuperating from a devastating 1999 car accident, so it only makes sense that the story is totally loopy. It’s the borderline insane tale of an alien parasitic anal worm invasion that can only be foiled by childhood friends who got superpowers from a mentally handicapped kid. It makes very little sense and feels completely overblown and damn it, it’s kind of awesome for that.
There are so many awesomely weird ideas in DREAMCATCHER, and so many actors making oddball choices and committing to them 100%, that the whole film feels less like an old-fashioned “bad movie” and more like a wacky fever dream. Some might call it “so bad it’s good,” some might just call it insane, but I say it’s a fascinating experience that deserves a wider audience either way.
Stephen King knows a thing or two about haunted hotels, but whereas THE SHINING took on an epic quality as a family is pushed to the limit of sanity and horror, 1408 stays small. In fact, it stays almost entirely in just one hotel room.
John Cusack plays a travel writer who makes a living doing books about haunted hotels. His latest subject, The Dolphin, has a rather infamous room (number 1408) which nobody has been able to stay inside for more than an hour. Cusack accepts the challenge, and sure enough, he starts to notice a handful of creepy things. And then… holy crap, does the shit hit the fan.
1408 started off as a writing exercise for Stephen King, and it turned into a cinematic experiment of its own. Telling a proper haunted house story in a very confined location, with mostly just one character, is a daunting prospect that filmmaker Mikael Håfström leaps into with both feet. And although the film probably doesn’t have the enormous personal impact that the best Stephen King adaptations do, it’s still an excellent thriller. 1408 came out to some success in 2007 but it doesn’t seem to get talked about very often nowadays, and that’s a shame.
Stephen King’s novel NEEDFUL THINGS was tough material to adapt in the first place. It’s a rich and textured tale about the devil coming to Castle Rock (a town King fans already knew well), and gradually tearing the townsfolk apart at the seams… by giving them what they want. But when the so-called “Last Castle Rock” story was turned into a movie in 1993, with an impressive cast no less, it was critically drubbed. The New York Times even accused it of being “the most unpleasant” Stephen King adaptation to date.
And yeah, I’ll go to bat against The New York Times. What part of a town falling into madness and despair is supposed to be “pleasant,” anyhow? NEEDFUL THINGS may not be the greatest Stephen King movie but it is an effective one, not so much “scary” as tragic, and an illuminating allegory for evil in our modern times. (Just think about how many politicians make campaign promises based on people’s fears and desires, as opposed to their needs.) Max Von Sydow is a very convincing devil here, and the supporting cast – particularly the great J.T. Walsh – are all doing a great job of falling apart right in front of us.
What NEEDFUL THINGS does probably need is a lot more time to tell its story. If anything, it might have worked better as a TV mini-series than a single feature, and sure enough three-hour cut has played on television that many fans of the novel prefer to the theatrical version. But both NEEDFUL THINGS adaptations deserve another look, especially considering the negative reactions this movie had when it was first released.
THE NIGHT FLIER
Some Stephen King movies get wide releases in movie theaters across America. And some, like THE NIGHT FLIER, barely got released at all. And that’s a shame, because this is actually one of the more unexpectedly wicked films to come out of the King filmography in the last 20 years.
Directed by Mark Pavia (FENDER BENDER), the film stars Miguel Ferrer as a tabloid reporter who leaves a trail of sleaze and cynicism in his wake. His latest assignment is the so-called “Night Flier,” a serial killer who flies to small airports and slaughtering whoever happens to be there at the time. Ferrer thinks it’s just some maniac with a vampire fetish, but the evidence begins to pile up that maybe, just maybe, his latest tabloid lie is the real deal.
THE NIGHT FLIER has its fair share of scares (and the ending is killer) but it’s a character study first and foremost, and Miguel Ferrer gives one his best performances as a complicated individual whose ethics are tested, and sometimes aren’t up to the task at hand. It’s an involving drama and a great horror thriller, and if you’ve never seen it you owe it to yourself to fix that right now.
RIDING THE BULLET
Mick Garris has directed more than a half dozen Stephen King adaptations, some popular (THE STAND) and some not so popular (THE SHINING, the TV mini-series), but few flew as far under the radar as RIDING THE BULLET, a film which was barely released in 2004 and still remains relatively obscure even amongst King fans.
Based on a novella from the year 2000, RIDING THE BULLET stars Jonathan Jackson (TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES) as a young man whose obsession with death starts messing with his head, as he hitchhikes home to visit his dying mother. Although the movie is clear and focused on the themes of mortality and guilt, the plot is a bit of a free-floating anxiety attack. Our hero seems to be living out a Stephen King version of FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS until he’s finally picked up for a corpse, played by David Arquette (SCREAM), who has a troubling proposition for him.
Folks who have dealt with the disturbing realities – and equally disturbing phobias – about the death of loved ones (and ourselves) will find RIDING THE BULLET to be one of the more thoughtful films in the Stephen King canon, even though the film itself may not be one of the very best. It’s a recommended watch for King fans, and for horror fans looking for something a bit more philosophical than old-fashioned shocks.
THE RUNNING MAN
The only proper sci-fi action movie based on a Stephen King novel (so far, anyway), THE RUNNING MAN is one of the more prescient “badass” movies of the 1980s, imagining a then-unimaginable future in which reality television has hypnotized the masses into an easily malleable stupor.
The top show on the airwaves is “The Running Man,” in which convicted criminals are given an opportunity to go free, provided they can survive a marathon in which they are pursued by super-powered maniacs. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the latest contestant, a soldier who refused to kill unarmed civilians who was then framed for killing unarmed civilians, and who turns out to be just as deadly as the show’s colorful cast of supervillains (who include an electricity-wielding opera singer, and a martial arts hockey player).
Based on a novel by King’s alter ego, Richard Bachman, THE RUNNING MAN has a cynical streak more than a mile long, and none of the down-home melodrama that often characterizes a Stephen King joint. But it’s a colorful and exciting action thrill ride that remains, to this day, one of the more interesting films in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s filmography.
TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE
Here’s a bizarre case of art coming full circle. After the enormous popularity of CREEPSHOW, the anthology horror film directed by George Romero and written by Stephen King, the idea of adapting the movie into a TV series began to take hold. But due to rights issues, CREEPSHOW was not available, so Romero took the series in a slightly new direction and called it TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE instead.
Eventually the series concluded and was followed by TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE in 1990, which featured an installment based on Stephen King’s horror short CAT FROM HELL. Many now think of TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE as the unofficial CREEPSHOW 3, and it’s easy to see why. The whole danged film is a ghoulish flight of fancy, in which a boy distracts the evil witch who plans to eat him by telling her scary stories.
The opening and closing tales are pretty good, but the best installment is easily King’s. CAT FROM HELL stars William Hickey as an aging millionaire who thinks a black cat is out for revenge. He hires a hitman to kill the cat, but it turns out to be harder job than it sounds. The cat is smart, and what’s more, it has a disturbing ability to fit into places where cats really, REALLY shouldn’t go.
The whole film is worth a watch, but make no mistake: CAT FROM HELL is what really makes this movie worth the price of admission.
Another particularly vicious story, based on a novel that King wrote as Richard Bachman. THINNER is the tale of an obese lawyer who accidentally kills a gypsy’s wife, gets off on a technicality, and then suffers a grotesque supernatural curse. He keeps getting thinner, which at first seems like a blessing, until he realizes that he won’t stop getting thinner until he dies.
It sounds more like a TALES FROM THE CRYPT episode than a feature film, and maybe it would have been better off that way (the movie’s shocker ending would certainly have fit the mold), but director Tom Holland does a very good job of keeping this simple premise alive through the film’s running time. What could have been a simple story about dramatic irony – first he was fat, now he’s too thin – into a disturbing spiral of hatred and violence. Neither side is willing to admit they’ve ever done anything wrong, and torment seems to be inevitable on both sides.
It’s not one of the best Stephen King movies, but THINNER has a reputation for being far worse than it really is. It may be a minor film in the King movie canon, but it’s not a bad one. If you were avoiding it before because you’d heard the word of mouth, take it from me: it’s worth a watch.