by Erik Lundegaard
Special to MSN Movies
Mention "Stephen King movie" and most people think of a horror fest in which a) there's a monster out there and it's slowly gobbling us up, or b) a machine has come to life and it's slowly gobbling us up. But King's films are wide and varied, and with the release of the latest, "Secret Window" starring Johnny Depp, we decided to compile a list of the best and worst his fertile imagination has given Hollywood.
Some ground rules: First, no TV movies, only theatrical releases. So yes to 1976's "Carrie" starring Sissy Spacek but no to 2002's "Carrie" starring Angela Bettis. It's apples and oranges, kids, and unfair to compare the two. (It also means we don't have to watch the TV stuff.) Second, we're not judging these movies based on how faithful they were to King's original work. Doesn't matter. Is this a good movie or not? That's all we're asking. Third, we're not considering most sequels unless King was directly involved, since, beyond a few characters and concepts, this stuff is no longer King's. So no "Children of the Corn II" or III or IV or V or (whew) "666: Isaac's Return." That's entirely too many children, and too much corn.
We were still left with a lot to plow through, about three dozen films, and at times our eyes were like pinwheels watching this stuff. But we emerged with only minor brain damage and a few insights to share:
-- If you find yourself in a Stephen King story, watch out for trucks, they're evil. And don't expect help from sheriffs, they're incompetent.
-- Any time Stephen King's name is above the title, like "Stephen King's Silver Bullet"? Well, that's not a movie you're going to hear about at Oscar time.
-- Sometimes being a master storyteller can work against you. "Christine," for example, is well-directed, has a good script, and the acting ain't bad. It just can't get past its premise. A possessed car? King makes it work in the book, but in a movie it just looks silly.
-- Of the five best Stephen King movies, none were adapted by King. Of the five worst Stephen King movies, four were adapted by King. We'll let Stephen King figure out the lesson here. And now, on with the countdown:
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
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."
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