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Top 30 Stephen King Movies, Ranked

From haunted hotels to prison-yard blues, ‘Carrie’ to ‘Christine’ – the major adaptations of the iconic author’s work, from worst to best

In honor of 'The Dark Tower' and 'It' films, we rank the top 30 Stephen King movies, worst to best – from 'The Shining' to 'The Shawshank Redemption.'

Rex, Everett Collection (2)

Back in 1973, when Stephen King sold his first book Carrie to a publisher (the manuscript of which he’d originally thrown away, and was rescued by his wife Tabitha), the up-and-coming, already published author might have thought: I may actually be able to make it as a professional writer. He probably didn’t think: I will also eventually end up one of the big bestselling authors of the next few decades, a highly decorated man of letters, a brand-name – and a one-man cottage industry for the movies. So many of his now-canonical horror novels, as well as his non–spooky-story output, have been fodder for filmmakers far and wide; the phrase “a Stephen King movie” carries with it it’s own expectations, parameters and conventions. And with not one but two big films coming out in the next month – the long-awaited blockbuster take on The Dark Tower hitting theaters on Friday and a reimagining of the kids v. evil clown epic It coming on September 8th – the King movie remains a bankable category unto itself.

And like any genre, there is the good, the bad, and the ugly. Originally, we’d planned to do a comprehensive worst-to-best ranked list, but the “ugly” proved to be too much for us – the last 10 years alone seem to have brought a wave of adaptations that run from questionable to “Unclean! Unclean!” There’s rewatching The Mangler, and then there’s straight-up masochism. Life is really too short for Dolan’s Cadillac.

So we’ll leave those completist lists for other folks. Meanwhile, we’ve gathered 30 of the best-known, most notable Stephen King movies, and ranked them from worst to best. A few things to note: We’re not including TV shows, TV miniseries or TV movies, so a hearty “sorry” to Salem’s Lot, the best of the latter by a longshot. We’ve concentrated primarily on adaptations of his work, though there is one entry that fudges that notion a bit … but that we could not bear to leave out. And finally, we ranked these movies on a dual scale of the quality of the movie itself and how well it worked as an adaptation of King’s work. (Please keep this in mind when you get to No. 5. Don’t @ us, people.)

Get busy readin’ or get busy dyin’.

Ted Danson, Gaylen Ross,

Everett Collection

10

‘Creepshow’ (1982)

It’s technically not an out-and-out adaptation of one of King’s books – the author wrote most of this E.C. Comics homage for the screen, only later turning the collection into an incredible graphic novel with legendary artist Bernie Wrightson. But we’re including it nonetheless, as the movie could not be a purer distillation of the novelist’s horror-centric sensibilities. The writer teamed up with George A. Romero for this bloody valentine to William Gaines’ 1950s
gore-peddlers – “the epitome of horror,” he declares in Danse Macabre – and the quintet of delightfully ghoulish tales (two based
on King’s stories “Weeds” and “The Crate”) are a scream: undead patriarchs,
interstellar kudzu, sea-soaked zombie lovers, an ancient Antarctic
gorilla … even King himself as a hillbilly rube. Plus,
thanks to make-up wizard Tom Savini, this candy-colored nightmare
features some of the most indelible gross-out images of the Eighties.
Cockroach-infested corpse, anyone? SG

Everett Collection

9

‘The Mist’ (2007)

Writer-director Frank Darabont crafted the bleakest ending imaginable for King’s tale about a mysterious fog that descends over a small Maine town. Commercial artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his son are among a group of locals stranded in a supermarket when the mist rolls in; soon, the barely glimpsed monsters concealed inside this unexplained meteorological phenomenon come a-knockin’. Skeptic Andre Braugher insists they have nothing to fear; religious zealot Marcia Gay Harden believes the end times are at hand. Then the squabbling turns violent after a predatory incursion, and a desperate escape attempt leads to unfathomable sorrow. In the years since its release, the movie has become a cult classic, and Darabont’s black-and-white director’s cut (available on Blu-ray) only heightens the dread-inducing mood. GM

Malcolm Danare

REX

8

‘Christine’ (1983)

King’s love of outsized characters and old-fashioned Americana make him a good match for Halloween/Escape from New York auteur John Carpenter, who oddly enough has only ever adapted one of the author’s books: This wild tale of a haunted car’s symbiotic relationship with a high-school nerd. The first hour of Christine is the director at his best, with his camera mapping out all the ways small towns can be both comforting and confining. He also brings as much of King’s colorfully profane dialogue and keen sense of character to the screen as he can, while always making sure the automotive horror runs neck-and-neck with scenes of teenage boys exploring their independence. Note to future filmmakers: This movie’s opening is the only acceptable way to use George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” in a movie. You will never top thisNM 

Linda Hamilton, Courtney Gaine

Everett Collection

7

‘Children of the Corn’ (1984)

Seven months before The Terminator hit theaters, Linda Hamilton was being terrorized by a completely different menacing force: A nightmarish cavalcade of creepily angelic tykes causing unspeakable horrors amidst the vast, empty stretches of the Midwest. An upwardly-mobile couple (Hamilton and Peter Horton) is en route to Seattle when they stop in a small Nebraska town, which just happens to be ruled by a murderous religious cult of glowering kids. Seizing elements of the zombie movie and the Western, Children of the Corn is a lean, brutally tense slasher film. But what’s most chilling is its deft weaponizing of American cultural tensions — between generations, economic classes, big cities vs. tiny rural communities, god-fearing conservatives vs. liberal atheists. Our heroes burn down the cornfield, but they can’t snuff out those still-lingering conflicts. (Or, for that matter, the ability to endlessly franchise a good idea for the home-video market.) TG

Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), Right, and Ellis Boyd "Red" Redding (Morgan Freeman)

REX

6

‘The Shawshank Redemption’ (1994)

This now-classic big-screen take on King’s novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (good call on shortening the title) was well-reviewed but barely seen during its original theatrical run; lots of frequent airings on cable, however, have turned it into one of the most beloved movies of the past quarter-century. Perhaps that’s because the decades-spacing story of an innocent convict (Tim Robbins) and a kind-hearted wheeler-dealer (Morgan Freeman) is as episodic and sprawling as what would become known as “prestige TV.” Or maybe its just that once audiences finally found Frank Darabont’s movie, they found it easy to relate to the central metaphor of imprisonment, which the movie beautifully translates (and expands upon) from King’s non-horror source material. Criminal or not, who hasn’t felt trapped? And who hasn’t dreamed of doing whatever it takes to feel free again? NM

REX

5

‘The Shining’ (1980)

It’s easily a ringer for both the Top Two Haunted Hotel Movies and the Top Three Man-Being-Fellated-By-A-Gent-In-A-Bear-Costume Movies Ever Made. Why, you may ask, is The Shining not the No. 1 choice on this list? Because if you’re talking about adaptations of King’s work, Stanley Kubrick’s glorious, grandiose ghost story gets docked points for often feeling like a semi-superficial skim over the source material – the equivalent of merely passing a bottle of vermouth over a dry martini rather than pouring any in. The author has long gone on record as hating Kubrick’s take; as recently as 2014, he was still lamenting Jack Nicholson’s crazy-from-the-get-go performance and the film’s hermetic vibe: “The book is hot, and the movie is cold.” Whether you think the film improves on the novel is a matter of opinion (we think it does), and anyone who wants fidelity can check out the 1997 miniseries, topiary animals and all. But seen through the lens of “Stephen King movies,” it’s an interesting interpretation of the book’s familial dysfunction and writer’s block en extremis, and thus not a top-of-the-heap choice. It’ll just have to settle for being one of the most iconic horror movies of all time. DF

Corey Feldman, Jerry O'Connell, Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix

REX

4

‘Stand By Me’ (1986)

He’s a modern master of horror-lit – and yet two of the strongest big-screen adaptations of the genre’s most popular purveyor don’t even try to be scary. Just like The Shawshank Redemption, the plot of this coming-of-age classic originated in King’s eclectic (and excellent) 1982 collection Different Seasons, and eschews vampires, killer dogs, and haunted hotels in favor of a low-key, personal story about four small-town boys in the late 1950s, played by stars-to-be River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell. As the kids take a dangerous hike to go look at a dead body, they share one last moment of camaraderie and bonding, before they get pulled apart by class differences and teenage angst. Rob Reiner gives it just the right touch of wistfulness and wonder, as well as somehow bringing the story’s anecdotal centerpiece – a pie-eating contest that ends in copious vomiting – to the screen with all its technicolor grossness intact. Kudos, sir. NM

Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen

Everett Collection

3

‘The Dead Zone’ (1983)

David Cronenberg is the man who made “body
horror” a thing; Stephen King’s tales of terror derive much of their power from down-to-earth Americana. An odd couple, to be sure. But the Canadian auteur brings out the best in the story of a New England
schoolteacher (professional weirdo Christopher Walken, pitch-perfect) who awakens from a five-year coma with the
ability to see the future of anyone he touches. Co-starring Martin Sheen
as a blustery, right-wing politician rising to power via blue-collar populism and ready to trigger World War III – imagine that! It’s cerebral but not chilly, complex but compelling – and as eerily prescient as its psychic protagonist.  STC

Everett Collection

2

‘Misery’ (1990)

Given that the writer takes defiant pride in penning books for fans and not critics, it’s more than a little ironic that his one Oscar-winning movie is about a reader who loves an author way too much. Kathy Bates took home the Best Actress prize for her alternately funny and terrifying performance as a rural nurse who saves the life of her favorite novelist (James Caan), then forces him to write a novel that indulges her fangirl whims. (King noted that the bestseller was both influenced by and written under the influence of some addictive substances. “Misery is a book about cocaine,” he claimed. “Annie Wilkes is cocaine. She was my number-one fan.”) Rob Reiner not only captures the original’s comic and waking-nightmare elements; he also gave the world a film that ended up predicting the increasingly toxic artist/audience relationship that’s developed in the the age of the internet. And that “hobbling” scene? Hoo boy. NM

William Katt, Sissy Spacek

Everett Collection

1

‘Carrie’ (1976)

Brian De Palma’s film version of King’s first published novel
is a masterpiece that stands on its own – both deeply unsettling and one of the more compassionate horror flicks you’ll ever see. Could we even
call it horror? Before it gets there, the movie goes through everything else: coming-of-age story, family drama, high school movie, social allegory, vigilante
thriller. As the shy, repressed teenager tormented by her fellow students on
one side and her deranged, Bible-quoting mother (Piper Laurie) on the
other, Sissy Spacek is appropriately haunted and anxious – her intense performance
has the quality of an exposed nerve. We feel for this girl and understand the impossibility of escaping the emotional
prison that she lives in. 

Meanwhile, De Palma’s
stylization is both lush and forbidding: His swooping camera moves and sly editing
tricks mix sentimentality and suspense, so that, much like Carrie herself, we
never quite know where any given situation is headed. And the film
sustains its tense, hesitant tone for so long that by the time the climactic
prom night massacre arrives – resulting in one of the great shock-and-awe set pieces of all time – even those of us who’ve seen the movies a dozen times are on the edge of our
seats. The bestselling author’s literary debut got the inaugural cinema du King film it deserved. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.  BE

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