HORROR TEN SPOT: Favorite Stephen King Adaptions
I'm not sure if it's due to the law of averages or if it's a complete misnomer that the film adaptations of Stephen King aren't very good. At this point, the regal King - our preeminent horror scribe - shelves two novels a year, not counting all the short stories the dude has and continues to churn out over the years. Naturally, some of the cinematic versions of his stories are going to fall flat. And many have. However, when preconceiving this here compilation, I was surprised to realize how many of his stories have aptly translated to the big-screen.
We all know the out-of-genre contributions...STAND BY ME and THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION are justifiably considered two of the finest films ever crafted. Personally, no movie means more to me than STAND BY ME. I truly think it's a perfect movie. It's my favorite. And SHAWSHANK? Who doesn't well up at Morgan Freeman's heart-wrenching voice-over at the end of the film? Pure magic.
But for our purposes here, let's take a look back at the Top Ten most successful horror-film adaptations of King's work. Vampires, werewolves, giant bugs, killer cars, troubled psychics, unbalanced fanatics, no subject has been unturned. All hail The King!
WARNING: MINOR TO MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
Marking his only directorial effort to date - be it big or small screen - perhaps The King was tired of seeing his stories get placed on the cinematic chopping block. His response? One of the most entertainingly cheesy, twisted, over-the-top action-horror romps we've had the good pleasure to revel in. Y'all know the crux: when a trailing comet permeates Earth's atmosphere, all the machines become animated in a homicidal scourge to rid all human targets. I can just hear the shredding AC/DC riffs now, set to a manic and kinetic pace, Emilio Estavez running around in some painful 80s threads. Now let's be honest, MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE isn't a great film, even by King's own admission, but opposed to his other tale of automotive terror (CHRISTINE), this one has a light, not-to-be-taken-serious mien that allows us to just sit back and have fun. Even if he was "coked out of his mind" while making it (which he's admitted), 25 years later and MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE really hasn't lost its speed!
I'll go ahead and say the most frightening bit of business in Mary Lambert's PET SEMATARY is that Zelda bitch, who was actually played a man (Andrew Hubastek). When she cavorts her way toward the lens in that one scene, her sickening spinal meningitis on display, I lose my shit every time. Then there's Pascal, a brain-splattered teenage jinni who walks and talks...not to mention the eerie Gage, who never disappoints when he lifts the scalpel with murder on his mind. Not sure about you, but like many of King's film adaptations, I saw PET SEMATARY on cable at an impressionable age. Therefore, nostalgia has just as big a part of the appeal nowadays as any qualitative merits the film deserves as a whole. And while it would have been interesting to see what George Romero could have done with material, or even Tom Savini for that matter (Romero was attached to direct, Savini turned it down), Lambert deftly follows King's own screenplay adaptation. A quick aside, I've partied with Beau Berdahl, one of the twins who plays Ellie Creed. Awesome lady!
A besotted Gary Busey? Corey Haim in a motorized wheelchair? In a tale of lycanthropic ravage amid an idyllic town? What's not to love about that intoxicating concoction? Y'all know the deal, when the quaint town of Tarker's Mill is overrun by a spate of grisly slayings, each done so under a full moon, it takes Haim's character to spot a fuzzy beast in the dense fog to convince the townsfolk something otherworldly is running afoul. And while it would have been interesting to see how Don Coscarelli (PHANTASM) would have handled the material (he was originally slated to direct, but dropped out over creative differences with producer Dino De Laurentiis), TV director Daniel Attias lends a great deal of 80s camp and kitsch to his one and only feature film. And as silly as it at times, can you imagine how over-the-top the film would be if, as initially scripted, the werewolf in the film spoke? An unspeakable level of hokum the film would sink to, wouldn't it? As it is, SILVER BULLET is not only one of the better King adaptations, it remains of the more exemplary werewolf yarns.
In what remains almost thirty years later one of the most sterling horror anthologies, Stephen King matches wits with zombie maestro George Romero in the 1982 classic CREEPSHOW. The result? A diverse five-part symphony of terror! Based on King's short stories "The Crate and Weeds," the film boasts a distinct comedic tone with that of the macabre, blending an ensemble of some of the best character actors, new and old, we've ever seen in a horror flick. Hell, King himself plays the title character in "The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill" segment, a sight I personally never tire of seeing, despite the smoked ham performance he turns in. Rounding out the chapters are "Father's Day," about a zombified patriarch serving revenge on his family..."Something To Tide You Over," in which the great Leslie Nielson buries his adulterous wife and her lover neck deep in the sand until the tide does them in..."The Crate," a grisly monster tale with Adrienne Barbeau and Hal Holbrook...and of course, "They're Creeping Up On You," a skin-crawling stint featuring a swarm of cockroaches. I dig the third and fourth segments the most...which is your favorite?
Perhaps only rivaled by IT, Tobe Hooper's 1979 appropriation of SALEM'S LOT has to be the crowning made-for-TV film based on King's work (or mini-series, if you'd like). Sandwiched betwixt EATEN ALIVE and POLTERGEIST, Hooper shows tremendous verve in painting a tale of ghastly vampires subsuming a small New England town. The brooding atmosphere, the rain dappled streets and impenetrable fog, the arresting appearance of the vampires themselves...all of it weave together in such an eerie way that it's surprising to think the film earned a PG rating. But it did. Apparently Larry Cohen wrote a first draft of the script, which was deemed lousy. Longtime TV scribe Paul Monash was brought on, and Cohen fought to retain screen credit. He failed, but as you may know, he ended up writing and directing A RETURN TO SALEM'S LOT in 1987. George A. Romero was also approached to direct, but when the property was turned into a potential TV vehicle, Romero understandably felt he'd be hamstrung by network restrictions. Personally, here's one instance when I'm glad Romero didn't take the gig, as I think what Hooper laid down is pretty damn solid!
It can be argued the lovably eccentric Christopher Walken gives his last great starring performance in David Cronenberg's psychic-thriller THE DEAD ZONE, based on Stephen King's novel of the same name. For those who missed this chilling thread, it focuses on Johnny Smith, a schoolteacher who awakens from a coma to realize he's developed clairvoyant detective powers. Walken plays the part with a quiet, reserved level of torment...torn between his newfound ability and the consequential responsibility therein. And much like the subject matter itself, the film proved quite prescient in that, in one scene, Smith instructs his students to read "The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow." 16 years later Walken would star in Tim Burton's SLEEPY HOLLOW. Coincidence? How about Marty Sheen's character being wracked with visions of becoming president of the United States? Of course, Sheen would fulfill that premonition by playing the U.S. president on the hit show "The West Wing," also 16 years later. Coincidence? Nope, it's THE DEAD ZONE!
After admirably adapting two-out-of-genre King titles - SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and THE GREEN MILE - writer/director Frank Darabont returned to his beloved genre (remember, he wrote THE FLY II, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3, etc.) with the 2007 creature-feature THE MIST. And boy are we glad he did! When residents of a small town take refuge in a supermarket after a swarm of giant mutated bug monsters wreak bloody havoc, it's up to a select few (headed by Thomas Jane) to band together and quash the incursion. Of course, the films conclusion has fostered a love-it or hate-it polarity, and I for one am proudly in the former camp. I love the punch-to-the-gut ending, the utterly soul-crushing anti-climax that never panders to pat happy endings and overwrought Hollywood formula. Apparently it's the only real amendment Darabont made to King's text, one that King wholeheartedly agreed with as being right for the movie version. Great character studies amidst eye-popping F/X work, never hampered by tacky CGI or stilted acting and dialogue. In short, THE MIST is difficult to see through!
Just as Frank Darabont would do with THE MIST, Rob Reiner waited until breaking our hearts with a "good" King tale in STAND BY ME before lancing our ticker with the "evil" of MISERY, which won the Best Actress Oscar for star Kathy Bates. Sadistic, claustrophobic, downright terrifying - what works so well in MISERY is the dichotomy of Bates' character. She starts off sweet and innocent, someone we feel we can trust. And as soon as we feel safe with this little old lady, BAM...the whacko gene kicks in and we're left with an indefatigable torture scenario that's impossible to escape. Adapted from King's novel by one of the finest who ever did it, William Goldman (ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID), more interesting than noting the who's who of A-list actors who turned down the role of Paul Sheldon (played by James Caan), is the script amendment of Paul's foot being cut off with an axe. Instead, Reiner opted against the novel for the sledgehammer business, which is far more unsettling if you ask me. Also, a scene was cut, much to the dismay of Bates, that saw her character trample a police trooper with a lawnmower. Now that's MISERY!
His first novel ever written is also the first ever adapted to the big screen, and thanks to Brian De Palma, it remains one of the best of its class. What works so well in CARRIE is the time De Palma takes in making us care for the title character, a poor girl in the throes of pubescent transformation. It's not just the schoolyard torment Carrie White endures, it's the mortifying religious fervor her mother (played by Piper Laurie in an Oscar nominated turn) tires to imbue her daughter with that, for me, derives most of the horror. Laurie is flat out terrifying in the movie. And by making us feel so deeply for what Carrie goes through, we actually root for her to exact revenge, no matter how sinister a route she takes to achieve it. Also nominated for an Oscar, Sissy Spacek's work as a mousy, unassuming anti-heroine is no doubt paramount to the success of the film. Equal parts psychological thriller and supernatural shocker, CARRIE holds up 35 years later as one of the first, and one of the best filmic renditions of a Stephen King novel.
King and Kubrick...the match made in cinematic hell! Largely panned by critics upon initial release, THE SHINING has unanimously gone on to become one of the finest horror staples ever achieved. The level of craftsmanship, the meticulous amount of detail, the unparalleled stedicam shots, the iconic one-liners, the undeniable sense of mounting dread...all of these facets come together in a way that elevates the genre from exploitation schlock to something far more salient. Of course, production was an arduous slog, taking 51 weeks to complete...with Shelly Duvall being vituperated by Kubrick to the point of tears, Stephen King disagreeing with the casting choices (he wanted Jon Voight or Michael Moriarty for the role of Jack), Kubrick insisting on upward of 100 takes per shot in some cases, etc. etc. Interestingly, in the first week of release, an entirely different ending was attached to the film: a hospital scene in which Ullman visits Wendy resting in bed, Danny playing in the waiting room. Ullman tells Wendy he was unable to find Jack's body anywhere on the property, then gives Danny the ball that was seen mysteriously rolling into the hall earlier in the film. A dissolve then brings us to the dizzying photograph reveal that now ends the film.