(Ch)Op-Ed #7: Best Stephen King Horror Adaptations Pt. 1 #20-#11

Stephen King writes scary stories. But they almost always lose something in translation to film. The way he writes, the details he pours into the book, somehow get lost. They become almost fairytale-like shells of their literary counterparts. A strong director can take the source material and make it their own, almost eliminating the Stephen King-ness from the movie, but a weak one just simply makes another movie. His best adaptations, The Green Mile (Frank Darabont), Stand by Me (Rob Reiner), Shawshank Redemption (Darabont), The Shining (Stanley Kubrick), are all made by strong, iconic filmmakers. Is that the case with his horror adaptations? Are the best ones made by iconic directors? What are your favorite adaptations? What did I miss? Below are my rankings for the best horror films or miniseries based on the works of Stephen King. No dramas. No comedies. Just horror.  

Let’s begin. 

20 Graveyard Shift (1990) 

“Graveyard Shift” is a 1970 short story that ultimately appeared in 1978’s Night Shift and served as the basis for this film directed by Ralph Singleton. Singleton only ever directed a couple of episodes of Cagney and Lacey and this film, instead producing films, acting as a production manager, and second unit directing. The film deals with a textile mill that has a rat problem and a group of people sent in to clean it up. Killer rats don’t necessarily make for a great movie, especially when you’re dealing with a paper-thin plot short story. Brad Dourif plays a rat exterminator, but for the most part, there aren’t any big-name actors involved. The last 3 movies on this list are all interchangeable, but since this one doesn’t have a big-name director or huge actors attached, it gets the last spot. 

19 The Mangler (1995) 

“The Mangler” is a 1972 short story that appears in the 1978 short story collection Night Shift. Directed by horror great Tobe Hooper, the film stars Robert Englund and “Buffalo Bill” Ted Levine. 2 Direct-to-Video sequels were released in 2002 and 2005 respectively, but neither were any good. The movie is as ludicrous as the plot sounds: a possessed laundry press kills people. There’s also a possessed ice box and a failed exorcism. There are only 19 pages to the source material, so there wasn’t a lot to work with from the beginning. There is some horror film royalty involved with this film, though, so that will keep it just out of reach from the bottom spot. 

18 Maximum Overdrive (1986) 

“Trucks” is a 1973 short story, once again appearing in 1978’s collection Night Shift. A comet causes machines to become sentient and take over the world, attacking and killing humans in ghastly ways. Stephen King himself directed this one, and stories of his cocaine and alcohol abuse on set are the stuff of legend. King himself disowns the film, and his experiences making it have prevented him from directing another film. The film drags when people are involved, but it excels when the machines are aggressive. There are fun scenes with a lawn mower, and one with a soda machine. Even the green hue in the sky is an interesting stylistic choice, as is the Green Goblin inspired main truck protagonist. However, despite the AC/DC soundtrack, it’s not a great film. And despite being more faithful to the original short story, 1997’s remake Trucks, starring Timothy Busfield, is a bottom of the barrel low budget TV film. 

17 Christine (1983) 

John Carpenter directed this film, released just eight months after the 1983 novel of the same name was released. But I hate it. There is a famous video that I have seen on Facebook Reels that I am not sure if it is real or if it is a parody of those TLC shows about strange sexual preferences, that tells the story of a guy who is in love with his car. He very lovingly rubs the chrome of it, lays under the front of the car in almost missionary position, and kisses it. The video has single handedly ruined any chance of me ever enjoying the movie. It simply features a 1958 Plymouth Fury that is possessed and kills people, protecting its owner, Arnie Cunningham, played by Keith Gordon. Carpenter wasn’t thrilled about making the film, considering it a job and not a passion project, but he felt it was necessary to advance his career. 

16 Sleepwalkers (1992) 

Sleepwalkers is unique in that it is not based on a story by Stephen King, instead it is an original script by him. The story is very odd, in that the last two people who are shape shifting vampires (a mother and son who also have sexual relations with each other) feeding on the life force of human virgins. Oh, and their weakness is cats, who see through their bullshit. Mick Garris, who has made a living adapting Stephen King’s works, directed this film that lacks major star power but DOES feature cameos from Mark Hamill, Tobe Hooper, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Joe Dante, and John Landis. Bonus points for the mother/son love scene, as it’s not often these types of scenes make it into Hollywood films. 

15 Salem’s Lot (1979) 

The basis for the film is the 1975 book Salem’s Lot, Stephen King’s second, and self-proclaimed favorite, novel. The short stories “Jerusalem’s Lot,” and “One for the Road”, both appear in the 1978 short story compilation Night Shift, and both are set in the same small town as the novel. The 1979 miniseries, directed by horror legend Tobe Hooper, inspired a theatrical sequel, 1987’s Return to Salem’s Lot directed by Larry Cohen, a 2004 TNT miniseries remake, and a feature film is in the works over at Warner Bros. The story concerns a writer who returns home looking for inspiration, only to find out his town contains a vampire. It has inspired numerous vampire films of the 80’s with its incredible ambience, scares, and set design. The iconic scene of the boy floating outside the window has both been paid homage in The Lost Boys and parodied in The Simpsons. 

14 Gerald’s Game (2017) 

Mike Flanagan, director of The Haunting of Hill Shouse, Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil, and Doctor Sleep, adapted this 1992 novel for Netflix starring Carla Gugino. Always a fan of the beautiful Gugino, I love the story of a woman who finds herself alone, in an isolated house, handcuffed to the bed, after her husband dies from a heart attack. She must face off with the voices in her head, hallucinations, and other things while trying to figure out how to survive. Flanagan is a favorite director of mine, having directed some of the most memorable horror projects in the past ten years. I prefer his original stuff the most, but he has also directed a few successful adaptations of Stephen King stories.  

13 Creepshow 2 (1987) 

2 of the segments in this anthology film were “The Hitchhiker” and “Old Chief Wood’nhead”, based on treatments and/or unfinished short stories by King. The other, “The Raft,” was a 1982 short story featured in the 1985 collection Skeleton Crew. George Romero used these to write the screenplay which Michael Gornick directed in his only directorial credit. Two other segments were written, but not used. They are “The Cat from Hell,” which was later included in Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, and the unpublished “Pinfall.” An incredibly uneven movie due in part to the fact that each segment is a tad too long, the film does feature some incredible moments. The ending to “The Raft” is genius, and the effects throughout that features the oil slick are intense. Also, “The Hitchhiker” is memorable for the poor guy who just simply won’t die and continues to say, “Thanks for the ride, lady!” after every time she hurts him. But the story of the vengeful cigar store Indian is a bore and the wrap around segments are uninspired.  

12 1408 (2007) 

John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson star in this adaptation of the 1999 short story that was collected in 2002’s Everything’s Eventual. Filmmaker Mikael Hafstrom is also known for directing The Rite with Sir Anthony Hopkins and Escape Plan with Sylvester Stallone and Ah-nold. A writer who writes about haunted places stays in a haunted hotel room, despite not being a believer in the supernatural. 1408 has the reputation of being incredibly scary, but I am not a subscriber to that. A good movie? Sure. Incredibly scary? Nah. The visuals are fine, as is the performance of Cusack, but it’s just another haunted room story. It’s like room 237 in The Shining if the movie only took place in that room for 2 hours. Sure, that room scares the crap out of you, and the things inside are horrible, but 2 hours of that can grow tiresome. 

11 Cat’s Eye (1985) 

Three stories make up the basis for this anthology film. “Quitters Inc.,” and the 1976 short story “The Ledge” both appeared in 1978’s Night Shift. “General” was written specifically for the screen. James Woods, Robert Hays, and Drew Barrymore, appearing in her second Stephen King film, star as mostly assholes getting their comeuppance. James Woods is a selfish prick trying to quit smoking and Robert Hays is a playboy who must walk around the ledge of a high rise to save his life. Only Drew Barrymore is innocent here, as she battles a troll in her bedroom with her newly found pet stray cat, General. The wraparound is fun, the humor is twisted, the troll effects are good for the time, and as a ex-smoker myself, I can sympathize with the character trying to quit. Lewis Teague also directed Jewel of the Nile, Cujo, Alligator, and Navy Seals with Charlie Sheen.  


Close but no cigar: 

The Dead Zone (1983) 

David Cronenberg’s adaptation of King’s 1979 novel is a sci-fi thriller starring Christopher Walken. It also spawned a USA TV series starring Anthony Michael Hall. However, it isn’t exactly horror, more sci-fi than anything. Close, but no cigar.  


Firestarter (1984) 

Mark Lester (Class of 1984, Class of 1999, Commando, Showdown in Little Tokyo) directed this adaptation of the 1980 novel of the same name. Drew Barrymore has pyrokinesis. Is it horror? It walks a fine line, that’s for sure. Ultimately, I say no. 2022 saw a reboot of the film released to even worse reviews than the original.    


Tune in for the final ten on this list of Stephen King’s best adaptations. What makes the cut? Is your favorite on the list?


About RetRo(n) 61 Articles
I like the 80s, slasher films, Italian directors, Evil Ed, Trash and Nancy, Ripley and Private First Class Hudson, retro crap but not SyFy crap, old school skin, Freddy and Savini, Spinell and Coscarelli, Andre Toulon, and last, but not least, Linda Blair.