I've been a movie enthusiast my whole life and been writing movie reviews for over 15 years.
As of this writing, there are at least a half-dozen projects in development based on Stephen King’s work, including a Pet Sematary sequel/prequel and a Salem’s Lot remake.
This article will rank only those films after the year 2000, since there are probably countless Stephen King rankings from the previous century. How else is this article different? For starters, if you actually finish reading it (!), you will get a free homicidal clown that’s older than our Universe or an alcoholic writer and father with an affinity for really old typewriters. If that’s not motivation enough to read on.
1) The Mist (2007)
Why is this the best King adaptation of the century? Because of that ending. Even if you haven’t seen the movie since 2007, you’ll probably remember the effed-up, but brilliant ending only hinted at in King’s short story. Director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) has basic archetypes for characters, but they’re broadly written enough so you know easily enough to root for (Thomas Jane’s everyman dad David) and who you want to die (Marcia Gay Harden’s Bible-thumping Karen). If you thought the monsters were better developed than the characters you wouldn’t be wrong. It also didn’t do anything to detract from your viewing experience. One of the bleakest and best endings of the aughties and the reason The Mist hasn’t disappeared from consciousness like a mist.
2) Doctor Sleep (2019)
Writer/Director Mike Flanagan’s almost seamless merging of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and the Stephen King novel on which it’s based should not work as well as it does. Ewan McGregor takes over for Danny Lloyd as a grown up alcoholic version of Danny (now Dan) Torrance trying to suppress his shine. Rebecca Ferguson devours scenes as Rose the Hat, the leader of the cult trying to sap (and kill) people like Dan from their shining.
The final act is a macabre love letter to fans of the Kubrick film, as well as a course correction to those who kvetched over the ending of Kubrick's The Shining. There are some stretches where it’s light on actual scares, but you’re never bored as almost two and a half hours fly by in the cold Colorado snow. A sequel not to be overlooked.
3) 1408 (2007)
The second best King adaptation of 2007 has a well-cast John Cusack as a spiritual debunker just ripe for a comeuppance. His Mike Enslin will stay the night at the supposedly haunted Room 1408 and because this is King, you know how this one will end up. It won’t be good for anyone, but the audience looking for some well-executed scares from a hotel room whose biggest frights don’t come from what you see under a blacklight.
Stephen King’s short story was perfect to translate into a feature length film, even if a backstory for Enslin felt unnecessary and only around to pad the running time. Samuel L. Jackson’s character was nothing like in the original story, but you don’t care because it’s Samuel L. Jackson (“It’s an evil _____ room”- insert the word you usually associate with Samuel L. Jackson). A fun, unnerving ghost story that will make you look under the covers every time you check into a hotel room.
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4) Gerald’s Game (2017)
Mike Flanagan’s first Stephen King adaptation is centered primarily in a bedroom and in our main character Jessie’s memories. (Jessie is played by a deceptively great Carla Gugino.) Couple goes to remote area to spice up their marriage. Husband cuffs wife to a bed. Husband has a heart attack. Oops.
An “interior” horror movie set in one place is more claustrophobic than you would expect, with Flanagan shaking things up visually so you’re not staring at the same four walls for two hours. Featuring one of the goriest, most visceral sequences I’ve seen in a while, but shot in a way that never feels exploitative. Flanagan does the best job one can with the novel’s problematic ending, and even if it’s the weakest part of the film, it doesn’t detract from the whole experience.
5) It (2017)
Gen X nostalgia goggles aside, this R-rated adaptation is exponentially better than the milquetoast '90s miniseries, simply because you really couldn’t do anything genuinely scary on network television in 1990. Try watching again and you’ll be bored to tears after 40 minutes.
Having written that, Andy Muschietti’s 2017 feature length adaptation of the thousand-page King novel saves the best for first as Chapter One eclipses the overly long and sometimes underwhelming Chapter Two by giving movie audiences what the miniseries couldn’t: onscreen blood and guts.
Yes, It does the 20-teen thing of setting everything in the 80s, but for the most part it works as the young cast has wonderful chemistry. You care enough to be terrified for them once Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard, indelible) is down to clown and kill. Not perfect, but good where it matters. It wasn’t the highest grossing R-rated horror film in history for nothing, very specific parameters notwithstanding.
Special Mention: Castle Rock (2018-19)
Though it only lasted for two seasons, the horror TV show based on Stephen King’s fictional Maine town provided enough scares and King fan service to be worth a Hulu subscription. The first season is well acted, if uneven. It’s still worth sitting through for all the Stephen King Easter Eggs.
The second season merges Salem’s Lot and elements of Misery better than anyone had the right to expect. Season Two is so much better than One and even makes S1 better by filling in backstory. Lizzy Caplan’s Annie Wilkes (the same character Kathy Bates won an Oscar for in Misery) is sinister and pitiable at the same time and more than holds her own taking on an iconic screen character. Well worth the two-season investment, even if you’re just a casual King fan.
The Salem’s Lot remake is set to be released in September 2022. While you wait for that and the almost endless King adaptations, watch or rewatch King’s best from this century.
© 2022 Noel Penaflor