Ask ten people to list the best Stephen King movies. Chances are pretty good you’re going to get 10 fairly different lists.
In a thousand years, when legendary author and “Mambo No.5” enthusiast Stephen King has finally died, or at least stopped writing books, we’ll keep on adapting his works into film and television for at least an additional millennia. The name alone evokes at least the possibility that things are about to get pretty dang spooky. It just doesn’t always work out that way for the viewer, because the range of quality among movies and TV shows (and more) based directly or indirectly on the novels and short stories of Stephen King runs basically the entire gamut of horror itself.
Movies in particular have been embracing King’s writings for nearly 50 years. Some of them are classics of horror. Others are more interesting than outright good. Then you’ve got a meaty stack of movies based on Stephen King books and stories that are virtually unwatchable.
I’m focusing on the 5 best this Halloween season at Make the Case, something we’ve somehow never done before. More specifically, I’m focusing on the five most enjoyed by my late mother. My mom passed away in late August 2023. While I didn’t get my love of horror from her (except for Stephen King, who my mom was a deep fan of), I did get my love of film from a woman who let me watch just about anything I couldn’t reenact in the backyard. Most Halloweens, she would watch as many Stephen King adaptations as she could get her hands on. I’m spotlighting five of her favorites, and then organizing them by which ones I like best.
It’s interesting what becomes associated with those we love most when they leave us unexpectedly and in complete bewildered emotional agony. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to shake the association with Stephen King movies, and I’m fine with that. These five are still somewhere my favorite horror movies to watch year in and year out.
5. Cujo (1983)
Director: Lewis Teague
With the possible exception of Justin Long, is there anyone else associated with horror who’s been through as much hell as Dee Wallace? The difference between Wallace and Long of course being that more often than not, Wallace plays characters who didn’t deserve to be hassled by dogs, Michael Myers, cannibals in the American Southwest, werewolves, or whatever the case may be. One of the great things about her performance is E.T. is that she actually has a pretty good run of things.
Much of what drives Cujo and keeps it interesting is her performance as a mom who becomes trapped in a car with her young son (Danny Pintauro). But as the two are being menaced by a St. Bernard who becomes effectively an unstoppable monster after being bitten by a bat, we’re reminded that Cujo also has phenomenal pacing and claustrophobia, taking the best elements of King’s novel to build an impressive, immersive, and above all entertaining nightmare.
Cujo is obviously one of those movies where the dog dies. One of the movie’s most effective takeaways from the book is in making us still care about that, even at the end of a pretty intense monster movie.
4. Christine (1983)
Director: John Carpenter
Just a guy and his car. Christine is kind of a love story when you think about it. Or at least a story of friendship in the spirit of something like Marley & Me. Director John Carpenter took Stephen King’s novel and Bill Phillips’ screenplay and directed a unique story of possession. A film which benefitted from Carpenter’s talent for actors playing authentic, believable characters, who happen to be going through situations that would be campy at best with other directors.
What I love about Carpenter, and this is particularly true for Christine, is an atmosphere built on unique lighting, fantastical horror scenarios, and characters who never fail to feel like actual people. It makes sense for these reasons that Carpenter would be a good fit for Stephen King’s books in the first place. Shame we didn’t see more of these adaptations from Carpenter.
Christine was one I watched with my mom at least 3 times, possibly more. It’s an easy movie to get into, with great performances by Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul, and Harry Dean Stanton, and amazing, fun special effects under the supervision of Roy Arbogast.
3. Carrie (1976)
Director: Brian De Palma
Why is the original adaptation of Carrie still the best one out of two remakes and a sequel? Is it nostalgia? Carrie was one of the first horror movies I ever remember watching with my mom, which wasn’t a genre we watched very often to begin with. But she liked Carrie a lot. I know a lot of people who don’t watch a lot of horror but have seen and loved the first film based on a Stephen King novel.
I honestly don’t know which movies she would pick for a favorites list, but I’m confident Carrie would be one of them on the strength of Sissay Spacek’s performance alone. It doesn’t surprise me that Spacek won an Oscar just four years later for Coal Miner’s Daughter. In both movies she plays someone who goes through hell and has a lot more strength than anyone around her believes. Obviously, there’s a few differences between Loretta Lynn and Carrie White.
Carrie was an early hit for its director, and Brian De Palma would go on from this to direct other stylish, surreal thrillers. This one is probably still my favorite, if only for the prom and everything after. That includes a showdown between Carrie and her mom, played by a scene-stealing Piper Laurie.
2. Pet Sematary (1989)
Director: Mary Lambert
While I’ve personally never found Pet Sematary to be all that scary, even as a little kid, I’m firmly with anyone who just finds Mary Lambert’s 1989 success to be one of the most entertaining adaptations of a Stephen King work. It’s all a little silly, at least to me, but it’s never not fun to watch, and you’ve at least got Miko Hughes as one of the scariest little kids in horror history. Pet Semetary also translates King’s notion from the novel that grief can make us do very, very stupid things. Burying your youngest child in a remote woodsy location that’s also a Mi’kmaq burial ground would be one such example.
It’s impossible not to think about the basic premise of resurrecting your loved ones at a terrible, terrible price, as it relates to grieving the recent loss of a parent. Would I? No. Jud Crandall (a brilliantly ominous, amiable Fred Gwyne) is right in his iconic quote. This was another we watched more than a couple of times. A loose tradition I wish we had made more time for.
Pet Sematary gets its best interpretations of King’s novel from its direction by Lambert, the movie’s willingness to be as shocking as the book could get, and obviously from most of the cast. The film seemingly knows when not to take itself too seriously. The 2019 remake had this problem in spades.
1. The Shining (1980)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
There’s no other horror movie I watched with my mom more often than The Shining. It might just be the very first horror movie my mom ever knowingly let me watch. I saw Stanley Kubrick’s controversial (especially if your name was Stephen King) adaptation of one of King’s most autobiographical novels when I was far too young for that sort of thing. I’m glad I did.
The Shining at a very young age gave me one of the scariest experiences of my life. It established a weird relationship to a film I’ve seen more than once in theaters, despite not even being alive when the movie was released. I’ve seen The Shining more than any other movie taken from a Stephen King story by a substantial margin. That started because of my mom, and I would say we watched it together a half-dozen times at least over the years.
When you look at the basics of The Shining, you have an incredibly atmospheric, effective ghost story (or tale of simple madness if you don’t think Kubrick thought the hotel was haunted) set in liminal space hell. That’s why The Shining, like the book itself, still impacts an audience after all these years. It’s a frightening world to surround yourself with, and the 1980 version of The Shining makes it almost impossible to resist the opportunity with its stark, terrifying scenic beauty and full-on descent into something greater and more vicious than ourselves. Or it’s all in your head. Either way is fine, really.
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