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Best/Worst Stephen King Movies

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The Best and Worst of Stephen King's Movies


The Best


5. "Stand By Me" (1986)

Directed by Rob Reiner; written by Raynold Gideon and Bruce Evans, from the novella, "The Body," by Stephen King.


Yes, there are false notes. White kids in 1959 didn't say "Skin me," and 12-year-olds tend not to have heart-to-heart conversations. ("You can do anything you want, man.") The closure Gordie feels when viewing the dead body is a little too neat, as is the ending. "We'd only been gone two days," the adult Gordie (Richard Dreyfuss) narrates, "but somehow the town seemed different. Smaller." "The Wonder Years," anyone? Yet their adventures are exciting (the oncoming train, the leeches), the dialogue is fun ("Yeah. What is Goofy?"), and there's something poetic about four boys walking along, singing and joking, with just empty train tracks ahead of them.


Who helps: Kiefer Sutherland and River Phoenix are great.

Who hurts: Wil Wheaton isn't.

Bullies: Plenty, led by Kiefer Sutherland at his bad-boy best.

Evil truck or incompetent sheriff?: Neither, although trains kill one boy, and nearly three others.

Academy Award Nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay.

Quote: "Mighty Mouse is a cartoon. Superman is a real guy. No way a cartoon beats a real guy."


4. "Misery" (1990)

Directed by Rob Reiner; written by William Goldman, from the novel by Stephen King.


There are better Stephen King movies, but none scarier. Werewolves, vampires, mutated rats, mean high-school girls -- all pale next to sweet-talking Annie Wilkes. We squirmed through this movie. We wanted to get away as much as Paul. It's more than her psychotic behavior. It's her prim-girl swearing, and eating Cheetos in bed while watching "Love Connection" or "Family Feud." It's Liberace, and the flower-print dress she wears to dinner. It's the figurines on her shelf. Yes, she terrifies. But first she nauseates.


Who helps: Kathy Bates, obviously, but James Caan is equally good as the writer. Many actors expressed interest in the role but all declined. They feared they would look weak. But Caan is never a weak man. That's what makes it all so terrifying.

Who hurts: Nobody.

Bullies: One guess.

Evil truck or incompetent sheriff?: J.T. Walsh as State Trooper Sherman Douglas makes a brief appearance. Richard Farnsworth's J.T. McCain, on the other hand, is that rarity, a smart sheriff in a Stephen King story. Yet even he gets it through the chest.

Academy Award Nominations: Best Actress. Bates won, too, making her the only person to win an Academy Award in a Stephen King movie.

Quote: "Ssshh, darling. Trust me. It's for the best."


3. "The Shining" (1980)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick; written by Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson, from the novel by Stephen King.


Cold and atmospheric, with incredible tracking shots, and some of the best quick-cuts in film. No pause. Just: "Tuesday." "Saturday." The sound editing was brilliant as well. That Big Wheel rumbling over hardwood floors, and then softly over carpet. Creepy. Kubrick even makes the "Road Runner" theme song sound creepy.


King, of course, famously didn't like the flick, and with some reason. Too many loose ends. The kid, we learn early, has shining powers, as does the Overlook Hotel, at least according to Dick Hallorann, which is why Jack Torrance is able to see all he sees. But what does this have to do with his writer's block? And why does the hotel suddenly reveal itself to Wendy Torrance at the end? Because she's already scared? So maybe the hotel reveals itself to you if: a) you have the shine, or b) you're already a little nuts, or c) you're scared out of your wits? Is that it? None of which excuses the ending. So Jack Torrance was in the hotel on July 4, 1921. We kind of already got that idea. It wasn't exactly a shock.


Who helps: Jack Nicholson gets all the attention, but the kid, Danny Lloyd, is quite good. This is his only feature film.

Who hurts: Some of King's criticism makes sense. OK, so you can't include everything from the book, but don't just hint at stuff. The guy in the dog suit? C'mon. Not to pun or anything, but throw us a bone here.

Bullies: None, really. Jack and the ghosts, a little bit, but not in the traditional Stephen King sense.

Evil truck or incompetent sheriff: The forest rangers don't help much, do they? It's all Scatman Crothers, who travels over a thousand miles, then trudges up a snowy mountain. "Hello? Anybody here?" Splat! Right in the chest. Hey, just like Richard Farnsworth!

Academy Award Nominations: None. But it was nominated for two Razzies, for Shelly Duvall and Stanley Kubrick. Which should earn the Razzies a razzie.

Quote: "Heeeere's Johnny!" (Do kids even know what this means anymore?)


2. "The Dead Zone" (1983)

Directed by David Cronenberg; written by Jeffrey Boam, from the novel by Stephen King.


Director Cronenberg can make the creak of snow or vinyl send shivers up your spine, his camera shots are off-kilter and claustrophobic, and the lighting is as bleak as a New England winter. Then there's Christopher Walken. You could teach a course on reaction shots just from his performance here: His awkward, gracious reaction when the husband of the woman he loves reminds him to vote for Greg Stilson for U.S. Senate; the exquisite double double-take after his vision of President Stilson starting World War III. You can see him thinking, "Oh my God," and he turns away. A second later you can see him thinking, "OH MY GOD!" It's exactly right and beautiful to watch.


Who helps: Everyone from Martin Sheen to Herbert Lom to Anthony Zerbe to Tom Skerritt. Plus Brooke Adams is definitely a woman to fall in love with. But Walken's the man.

Who hurts: The kid playing Chris is a little weak.

Bullies: Stilson's aide, Sonny.

Evil truck or incompetent sheriff?: Both. An overturned milk truck causes Johnny's accident, while Sheriff Bannerman (Skerritt) has no clue about a serial-killer case and calls in Johnny for his psychic abilities.

Academy Award nominations: Zilch.

Quote: "You're either in possession of a very new human ability -- or a very old one."


1. "The Shawshank Redemption" (1994)

Written and directed by Frank Darabont, from the novella, "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," by Stephen King.


What makes a classic? Great leading actors. Distinct secondary characters. A care for language. Good guys overcoming adversity in believable fashion. Bad guys getting theirs. A story that's operatic without being melodramatic. "Shawshank" has all this and more. It has the patience of an Andy Dufresne.


Who helps: Try not to feel joy when Morgan Freeman shows joy onscreen. Just try. We're thinking of three scenes in particular: When Rita Hayworth appears in "Gilda"; when Tim Robbins tells him he had to come to prison in order to be a crook; and when he first steps outside Shawshank. Plus James Whitmore, Bob Gunton and a slew of tough-guy character actors. Nice.

Who hurts: We never did buy Gil Bellows as the rock 'n' roll thug. Even before "Ally McBeal."

Bullies: The sisters; Capt. Byron Hadley; the warden.

Evil truck or incompetent sheriff?: Neither. This is a classy movie.

Academy Award nominations: The most ever for a Stephen King picture, seven, including Best Picture, Actor (Freeman), Adapted Screenplay, Sound, Music, Editing, and Cinematography. It won nothing.

Quote: "You could say he'd done it to curry favor with the guards. Or to make a few friends among us cons. Me, I think he did it just to feel normal again. If only for a short while."


And now, the worst:


5. "Silver Bullet" (1985)

Directed by Daniel Attias; written by Stephen King, from the novel by Stephen King.


Something is killing the residents of Tarker's Mill in brutal fashion. What could it be? Well, we know right away it's a werewolf, and the kids in the picture, Corey Haim as an invalid, and Megan Follows as his older sister, know fairly quickly it's a werewolf. But will anyone believe them? Yes, it's one of those movies.


Oh no, the werewolf knows who I am, and I'm an invalid, and he's already tried to kill me twice, and I suspect he'll attack me during the next full moon (this werewolf can attack at any time, by the way, not just during full moons), but what can I do? I'm just a kid and no one will believe me. Even though half the town has sorta seen the werewolf. So I'll just hole up in this house with my sister and drunk uncle, who still doesn't believe me, and wait for the werewolf to come. But we've got one silver bullet in one gun, which my drunk uncle waves around. We'll be fine. Don't you worry.


Who helps: Young Corey Haim is good, and Gary Busey is always our first choice for a drunk, good ol' boy-type uncle.

Who hurts: Mostly King's script, which makes no sense. The werewolf kills his second victim by climbing a trellis and jumping into her bedroom. The next thing you know there's a curfew: Don't leave your house after 5 p.m.! Um ... how is this supposed to make us safe?

Bullies: Guy at a bar who starts a vigilante committee.

Evil truck or incompetent sheriff?: Sheriff Joe Haller can't do anything to stop the werewolf or the vigilante mob.

Quote: "I think he's going to come after me. But I think he's going to wait until the moon is full."


4. "Graveyard Shift" (1990)

Directed by Ralph S. Singleton; written by John Esposito, from the short story by Stephen King.


No great plot holes here. Just a stupid, unpleasant movie about stupid, unpleasant people saying stupid, clich-ridden lines in a sweaty Maine textile mill overrun with rats. None of the actors are good or good-looking or well-known. There's no gratuitous nudity or sex or sensuality. And the creepiness factor (all those scuttling rats) is mitigated halfway through when the rats suddenly disappear in favor of one giant, shadowy (but less creepy) rat. The final insult? The "song" over the end credits just samples lines from the film, including a man screaming, "No more! No more! AAAAHHHH!" Exactly.


Who helps: Brad Dourif distracts us for a while, but then his overacting gets obnoxious.

Who hurts: Pretty much everyone.

Bullies: The textile mill foreman, Warwick, with the thick-as-molasses Maine accent ("Show's ovah!"). A couple of rubes in the town bar.

Evil truck or incompetent sheriff?: Neither.

Quote: "Wouldn't mind his boots restin' under mah bed."


3. "Pet Sematary" (1989)

Directed by Mary Lambert; written by Stephen King, from the novel by Stephen King.


Hi, I'm Jud Crandall. When a neighborhood cat is killed, I lead the cat's owner, Louis Creed, to an Indian burial ground and tell him to bury the cat there. Here's what I don't tell him: That as a result, the cat will come back to life, and this time it will be evil. Why do I do this? Am I evil? No. Am I befuddled? No, I'm fairly sharp for someone from Maine. I guess I'm just an idiot. But I get mine in the end.


Hi, I'm Louis Creed. What do I do after my daughter's cat comes back from the dead? Do I kill this evil abomination? No, I let my daughter play with it. And when my 2-year-old son is killed, and despite warnings from a nice ghost with a bleeding head wound, I decide to bring my boy back to life, too. But, whoops, he turns out evil (didn't see that coming), and he cuts up my neighbor and wife with a scalpel. Then he tries to kill me -- flying through the air and gnawing at my neck -- but I manage to kill him instead. Ah well. Lesson learned, right? Not really. I immediately carry my dead wife to the Indian burial ground to resurrect her. I guess I'm just an idiot. But I get mine in the end.


Who helps: Fred Gwynne does a fine job but winds up with a toddler feasting on his neck. "The Munsters" was Shakespeare in comparison.

Who hurts: Denise Crosby. Darling, you left "Star Trek" for this?

Bullies: None, really. Just the dead.

Evil truck or incompetent sheriff?: Trucks run over a teacher, a cat, and a toddler. They scare everyone. Changing the speed limit in town might help but it'd probably ruin the sequel.

King cameo: The minister during the toddler's funeral. It may be his best performance -- brief and understated.

Quote: "Daddy, now I want to play with yewwwwww."


2. "Sleepwalkers" (1992)

Directed by Mick Garris; written by Stephen King directly for the screen.


OK, so you're a sleepwalker, a shapeshifter who feeds off the energy of virginal human females while being vulnerable to the scratch of a cat, and you and your sexy Mom arrive in a sleepy Indiana town after narrowly escaping capture in Maine. Lying low makes sense. So what do you do? In school you write, and read aloud, a story about sleepwalkers: a mother and son, as a matter of fact, who flee from town to town. When a fat teacher searches into your background, you kill him. Immediately afterward you go joyriding around town, so now the cops are after you. And one of the cops just happens, just happens, to patrol with a kitty cat in his front seat. Whoops.


The epigraph at the beginning of "Sleepwalkers" attempts to play off the vampire legend, but there's a big reason vampires work on the big screen: Drinking blood, fear of daylight -- it's all cool. The reason sleepwalkers don't? A bunch of housecats attacking someone looks really, really stupid. Oh, and Madchen Amick is still a virgin? In your dreams.


Who helps: Brian Krause, Madchen Amick and Alice Krige don't stink.

Who hurts: King's original screenplay is riddled with as many holes as Beatty and Dunaway at the end of "Bonnie and Clyde." Also a gaggle of directors -- Joe Dante, John Landis, Clive Barker and Tobe Hooper -- decide to show up in bit parts. To lend support? To divert our attention? Because they're directors and they don't know a bad script when they read one?

Bullies: The sleepwalkers; a fat teacher.

Evil truck or incompetent sheriff?: The Indiana police department looks as dumb here as the Chicago police in "The Fugitive." Our favorite moment: two cops converge on the sleepwalkers' home, see no one, and immediately holster their guns. Umm ... upstairs, guys?

King cameo: The cemetery caretaker. Not good. But not as bad as Jordy Verrill in "Creepshow."

Quote: "He was ... (sob) ... He was very charming."


1. "Maximum Overdrive" (1986)

Directed by Stephen King; written by Stephen King, from the short story, "Trucks," by Stephen King.


It's got it all: Bad acting, bad dialogue, unpleasant characters, plot holes you can drive Christine through, and a tone-deaf director who apparently learned scene-to-scene continuity from Ed Wood. And has any leading man ever made so many wrong decisions? Emilio Estevez urges his boss not to shoot a rocket grenade at the evil machines, even though this would help their situation. He joyfully turns on the pumps when the trucks want gas, even though this hurts their situation. His plan is to sail to an island that has no machines. But ... speedboats? Airplanes? Apparently Emilio doesn't think of these. Apparently neither does anyone else because the plan works. Or so we're told in an afterword.


And how about that afterword? We spend 90 minutes watching a group of rubes battle trucks in a truckstop, and as they sail off into the sunset we're told that two days later a UFO is shot down and everything was fine. The End. UFO? Hello?


King has admitted he was addicted to alcohol and cocaine back then, so maybe "Maximum Overdrive" can still be put to use, as the greatest anti-drug message ever filmed. A fried egg? No, kids, this is your brain on drugs.


Who helps: Pat Hingle is a professional, as always, and Yeardley Smith (the voice of Lisa Simpson) provides Shelley Winters-like comic relief.

Who hurts: Emilio Estevez and Laura Harrington, our romantic leads. But it's King's movie, he does it all here, and he does it all badly.

Bullies: Pat Hingle.

Evil truck or incompetent sheriff?: All evil trucks all the time. One even grins.

King cameo: Man at Cashpoint. Says the first line in the film: "Honeybuns, this machine just called me an a**hole!" Ninety-seven excruciating minutes later we agree with the machine.

Quote: "What gets me is the stupidity."

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I'm a sucker for King movies, even if they're bad. I've seen "The Shining", "The Dead Zone", "The Shawshank Redemption", "Sleepwalkers", "Maximum Overdrive" (and a movie VERY similar called "Trucks"), and some not on the list, like "Sometimes They Come Back", "Thinner" and "The Langoliers".


I LOVED The Langoliers up until the point that the langoliers actually show up. Just round, hairy, teeth. Not scary at all.

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