Stephen King knows a little something about horror even if some of the adaptations made from his work suggest otherwise.
October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article ranking the top 50 Stephen King horror movies (and horror adjacent ones too) is the final part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
It’s no overstatement to say that Stephen King is something of a phenomenon. He’s been one of the world’s bestselling writers for multiple decades now, and no living author has even come close when it comes to the number of film adaptations made from King’s work. From the big screen to the small, King’s stories have been steadily brought to life since the late 70s, and they’ve yet to show any sign of slowing down.
As we bring this year’s 31 Days of Horror Lists to a close, we’ve decided to make King’s horror efforts the focus of our big, month-ending list. There are a lot of ways we could have gone here, but we decided to limit ourselves to King’s movies, TV movies, and mini-series — which excludes TV series, limited series (ones stretched to more than four episodes), and direct-to-video sequels — with a specific focus on the horror/genre titles. A handful of films fell by the wayside as we capped the list at a solid fifty, but you’re not missing much. (I’ve ranked King myself elsewhere, but it’s noticeably different from a list voted on and crafted by seven people.)
Now keep reading to see where all fifty of the king’s movies/miniseries land on our epic list, as collectively ranked by Chris Coffel, Brad Gullickson, Mary Beth McAndrews, Meg Shields, Anna Swanson, Jacob Trussell, and myself.
50. Carrie (2013)
Now look, no one is going to argue that Kimberly Peirce’s remake (or re-adaptation) of Carrie can hold a split-screen candle to Brian De Palma’s classic. It is a tame, gauche, and sanctimonious version of the tale of Carrie White (Chloë Grace Moretz), a sheltered teen who unleashes repressed telekinetic powers on her small town after being pushed over the edge by her bullying peers. The 2013 Carrie is not very good. But it does feature a very good performance by Julianne Moore as Carrie’s religiously fervent mother Margaret White. Her ravings about the hardships of living in godless times are so well delivered you almost sympathize. And while feeling bad for an abusive parent in a Stephen King story isn’t a great sign, sometimes you’ve got to call ‘em like you see ‘em. When it comes to the 2013 Carrie: Margaret White forever. (Meg Shields)
49. Secret Window (2004)
The day we stop using Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) as a source for horror and violence is the day that I will know peace. Sadly, Secret Window, an adaptation of King’s novella “Secret Window, Secret Garden,” is a textbook example of such a trope. Writer Mort Rainey (Johnny Depp) is confronted by one John Shooter (John Turturro), who accuses Rainey of stealing his story. But as their relationship gets more violent, Mort realizes that he and John have a lot more in common than he could have imagined.
Despite its use of age-old harmful tropes about mental illness, director David Koepp does create an effective, haunting, if not predictable, tale about jealousy. You can spot the twist coming from about a mile away, but it’s still an incredibly entertaining watch, particularly as Turturro chews up the scenery with his Southern drawl and intimidating presence. He is able to create quite a terrifying villain, marked by that trademark wide brim hat. Also, Depp is deeply relatable as, dressed almost exclusively in a bathrobe, he lives out a writer’s depressing existence of writer’s block and overeating. (Mary Beth McAndrews)
48. The Langoliers (1995)
What if an episode of The Twilight Zone was three hours long? That’s basically the idea that The Langoliers takes and runs with. Or, rather, flies with. The two-part mini-series follows a group of passengers on a red eye to Boston who awake mid-flight to find that everyone else on board has disappeared. They’re then tasked with figuring out what happened while trying to make sure that as Bronson Pinchot chomps down on the scenery, he doesn’t accidentally take anyone’s arm off. To Pinchot’s credit, however, overacting is the only way to make something of these thin characters. Ultimately, this isn’t a bad premise and it allows for some spooky twists and turns. But considering the source material was part of a novella collection, the mini-series should have taken a cue from King and embraced brevity. (Anna Swanson)
47. Carrie (2002)
Director David Carson‘s made-for-TV adaptation of Carrie isn’t a bad film so much as it is an incredibly dull one. Attempting to “remake” the work of Brian De Palma is hard enough as it is, but when restricted to the confines of network television it’s a nearly impossible endeavor. Bryan Fuller‘s script is mostly faithful to King’s novel, but given the two-hour runtime, a lot of it feels like filler and fluff added in to fit a specific time slot. Multiple times the camera lingers on characters after they speak, which I assume was an attempt to squeeze in an extra five seconds here and there.
Notably, the ending is changed to open the door for a television series that was never picked up. The film has some good performances from Angela Bettis and Patricia Clarkson as Carrie and her mother, respectively, and David Keith is always a treat. The iconic prom scene manages to entertain despite some poor digital effects. Unfortunately, it takes seemingly forever to get to the prom and prior to that the film lacks any semblance of a punch. (Chris Coffel)
46. Dreamcatcher (2003)
As a child, the trailer for the 2003 adaptation Dreamcatcher haunted my dreams. I was going through a phase of being absolutely terrified of being abducted by aliens, so that obviously didn’t help. What I didn’t realize until I finally saw this movie was that it would also involve grown men talking a lot about farting and an alien being literally pooped out. The film follows a group of four friends going on their annual camping trip in Maine. They’ve been close since they were kids, especially united by their shared psychic powers, bestowed upon them after saving Duddits, a boy with Downs Syndrome. While on their trip, they’re placed in quarantine after an alien ship crashes in close by, unleashing a deadly parasite ready to destroy humanity.
That parasite is what burrowed inside human hosts and expelled itself from their bowels. Meanwhile, Colonel Abraham Curtis (Morgan Freeman) is leading a military force that specializes in extraterrestrials to destroy the threat. The cast is stacked, featuring not only Freeman, but Damian Lewis, Jason Lee, Timothy Olyphant, Thomas Jane, and Donnie Wahlberg. It suffers from a common Stephen King adaptation problem as it tries to take too much information and stuff it into two hours. King’s works are so complex it’s difficult to parse what should be included. Yet, Dreamcatcher is an admirable effort and at least a fun, gory creature feature. (Mary Beth McAndrews)
45. Thinner (1996)
I don’t know if I’ve hated a Stephen King character more than Billy Halleck (Robert John Burke) in Thinner. Burke’s performance is incredible as he constructs a man that I want so badly to punch in the face. He is so full of himself and you practically applaud the body horror as the slimy lawyer gets his comeuppance. In the film, Halleck, who is depicted as overweight and obsessed with food, has recently gotten a notorious crime boss acquitted of murder charges. He’s a man more interested in money and power above everything else. But then he accidentally hits a Romani woman with his car and kills her. But because he’s friends with the chief of police and the judge, he’s also acquitted of all charges. In an act of revenge, the woman’s father places a curse on Halleck that causes the lawyer to lose weight at an alarming rate. What ensues is a nasty little piece of body horror that is only skin deep. (Mary Beth McAndrews)
44. The Dark Tower (2017)
While there’s a lot that can be leveled against The Dark Tower, we have to give it credit for ambition. Sure, maybe combining information from multiple books into one 90-minute movie wasn’t the best strategy, but it was a bold way to take on King’s source material. Unfortunately, the narratively dense film reads as near-incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with the books, and too unfaithful to the original text to land for most fans. With a muddled plot, the YA adventure/sci-fi thriller/Western is a lot to take in and make sense of. However, there’s something to be said for Idris Elba’s reliably charming performance and Matthew McConaughey’s intensely unhinged turn as the film’s villain. (Anna Swanson)
43. It: Chapter Two (2019)
The number one thing to be said for It: Chapter Two is that the casting department and the actors they chose all understood the assignment. As the film follows the Losers Club all grown up, the characters and performances blend rather seamlessly from child to adult. The ensemble cast shares a great deal of chemistry and, perhaps even to the film’s detriment, the connections between characters vastly supersede the scares. Ultimately, with a bloated, almost three-hour runtime, the film’s frights can’t quite sustain the effectiveness of the first installment. (Anna Swanson)
42. In the Tall Grass (2019)
Vincenzo Natali’s adaptation of the Stephen King and Joe Hill novella captures the concept’s initial fright exceptionally well. Brother and sister, Cal and Becky, pull to the side of the road in middle America and hear a young boy calling for help from the roadside cornfield. They rush in to lend aid but quickly find themselves swallowed by the vegetation. No matter where they run, there’s no way out. Like the story itself, the film’s answers don’t quite equal satisfaction, but King’s supernatural elements should always be bested by the human dynamics and the performers who inherit them. In the Tall Grass features plenty of divots amongst the corn maze, but the film holds onto its wonder and oddity right up until the fade out. (Brad Gullickson)
41. Pet Sematary (2019)
Ranking notwithstanding, Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s 2019 adaptation of Pet Sematary is a good time! The original novel is one of my favorite King books as it’s both terrifying and heart-breaking, and the most recent adaptation captures that ethos rather well. When Louis Creed (Jason Clarke), his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), their kids Ellie and Gage, and their cat Church arrive at their new home in a small town in Maine, they quickly discover a strange pet cemetery behind their home.
Their neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow) explains that the ground is different there, and is rumored to bring things back to life. When one of their children dies in a tragic accident, Louis decides to test the legend, with rather terrifying results. Where this adaptation stands out is in its deeper examination of Rachel Creed and her trauma around her sister Zelda’s own tragic death when they were children. King isn’t known for his female characters, so it was refreshing to see space given to further develop Rachel into more than just a wife. (Mary Beth McAndrews)
Related Topics: 31 Days of Horror Lists