Top 5 Tuesday: Spooky Stephen King

According to IMDb, Stephen King’s wonderful novel Bag of Bones is currently in production for a TV series. This made me very happy as I am a very big fan of that book and, of the writer himself. Mr. King and his writing talents get short-changed by many critics, mostly because he is so insanely popular. I have always believed that the enormity of his success has hindered his standing as one of our country’s finest modern-day writers. But anyone who has had the opportunity to read his insightful book, On Writing will truly be able to have a deeper appreciation for the author as he speaks to the art and craft of the writing process.

So Stephen King has written a bazillion short stories and novels – and a bazillion films have been adapted from these works. Some brilliantly executed, while others – eh, not so much (there are actually 7 Children of the Corn films). I thought to devote this weeks Top 5 Tuesday to the scary films based on his stories. Now before you start screaming, “Where the hell is The Shawshank Redemption?! Stand By Me? How can you forget The Green Mile?” I will state up front that I chose to stick with the horror/thriller genre, which constitutes about 90% of the movies. For the record, both “Shawshank” and “Green Mile” would positively make my Top 5, as I think they are both marvelous films directed by the very talented Frank Darabont. But since Stephen King is mostly associated with “the spooky,” I stayed in that direction.

I’m not a connoisseur on horror films by any means. But I do enjoy a good scary movie every now and then, and I especially admire the few smart horror films released (last year’s Let Me In, for example, was terrific, based on the even better Swedish film). And I have enjoyed many films based on the works of Mr. King through the years. Here is what I consider the 5 best:

5. Firestarter (1984)

I know this may not be included on everyone’s list, but I appreciate and enjoy this science fiction thriller an awful lot. Based on one of King’s earlier works, Mark L. Lester does a very good job at bringing his vision to the screen. One standout here is that King adapted the screenplay himself, which has rarely been the case since. The story is a good one too. Little Charlie McGee (Drew Barrymore) has a powerful and dangerous gift for a young girl…pyrokinesis. The United States government is threatened by this and wants to take her away from her father (David Keith) for their own use. The father, Andrew McGee, had previously participated in a medical experiment that gave him telekinetic ability. The father-daughter relationship here is played very nicely. And a strong supporting cast (which includes Art Carney, Martin Sheen, and Louise Fletcher) gets to shine here too, especially George C. Scott as the enigmatic John Rainbird. It may look a bit dated at this point, but the story and Lester’s execution still holds up mighty well. Like Carrie and Cujo, Firestarter ranks among the best early movie adaptations of Sir King.

4. Misery (1990)

I’m not a big fan of Rob Reiner at all, but I can’t deny the fact that he did a terrific job at bringing this tremendous 1987 novel to the screen. Unlike most of King’s stories, this one doesn’t have a supernatural element to it – but it is, at times, horrifying – and in many areas (mainly due to the splendid editing), very suspenseful. James Caan plays Paul Sheldon, the famed novelist who gets into a terrible car accident on his way west with his brand new novel. He is “rescued” by Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), a nurse, and brought to her remote home. Sheldon’s #1 fan promises to take good care of him. Caan and Bates have a wonderful dynamic together – and Ms. Bates gives one of cinema’s most horrifying performances – so well-deserving of the Oscar she won for her work here. The character is already enmeshed in film lore (“You dirty bird!”) and though most of the movie takes place in her home, Reiner keeps the film from feeling claustrophobic. It’s a marvelous story woven by Mr. King – with a terrific screen adaptation by William Goldman, one of our best screenwriters. And Mr. Caan, known mainly for playing “the tough guy” or “hothead,” is also so good. It is refreshing to see him play such a composed character – and one who is so utterly helpless. Misery is a beautifully shot film that always has me putting my hands to my face.

3. The Dead Zone (1983)

David Cronenberg directed this wonderfully creepy, suspenseful and thought-provoking flick. Christopher Walken plays a mild-mannered schoolteacher who gets in a terrible car wreck and awakens from a coma five years later, only to find his former life all but gone. He has however developed the fantastical ability to tell a person’s secrets simply by touching them. When he shakes hands with the Senatorial candidate Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), he foresees him becoming president of the United States and the man behind instigating a nuclear war with Russia. The film raises some provocative questions – but it is clear this all stems from the mind of Stephen King. The hunt for a local serial killer is eerie indeed and Walken’s telekinetic visions are gripping. Walken is terrific, as he’s given a great character to sink his teeth into. The film deserves mention on this list solely for the way he screams to a young boy’s obstinate father, “THE ICE IS GONNA BREAK!” It’s perfect Walken!

2. The Mist (2007)

I love this film! Love it, love it, love it!!! And how awesome is Frank Darabont at bringing King’s work to the screen?! This is a sensational and courageous piece of filmmaking – horrifying, profound, enthralling – and has one of the very best endings in recent years. The ensemble cast is stellar – all recognizable faces, but I am so glad they decided not to go “the star route” with this one. Andre Braugher, Marcia Gay Harden, William Sadler, Frances Sternhagen, Toby Jones, and Jeffrey DeMunn are all given such rich characters to play with and they are all wonderful here. The film though, revolves around family man David Drayton (played by Thomas Jane, who I had not heard of before, and hold the film together quite nicely). After a terrible storm, David takes his young boy to the local grocery store. The store loses power and the patrons are then alerted to a mysterious, oncoming mist. Most of the action from here on out takes place in the store as the shoppers are literally trapped. And what is outside (not to mention what attacks the store) is spine-chilling and great fun to watch! Some amazing elements take place between the locals as they remain trapped and form their own sects within. Fascinating religious themes come into play and again, King illustrates how well he knows how the human mind works in dire situations. A must-see horror movie – a must-see movie period!

1. The Shining (1980)

Is this really a surprise to anyone? I know Mr. King wasn’t exactly thrilled with what director Stanley Kubrick did with his superb 1977 novel, but this is a horror classic, and surely one of the very best ever made. The TV mini-series was nothing compared to this absolutely sinister film. As caretaker for the stately Overlook Hotel, Jack Nicholson gives a sensational, multi-layered and horrifying performance. Of course, he is perfectly cast here. Shelley Duvall, a seemingly unusual choice to play his wife, counters Nicholson perfectly. We are treated to gorgeous cinematography, impeccable production design and a sense of terror from the very opening of the film. Those freaky twins, the woman in Room 237, Grady telling Jack what must be done with his wife and child, the elevator, REDRUM – it all makes for a beautifully woven creepfest helmed by one of film’s greatest directors. The ambiguous ending (with the black-and-white photograph) always fascinates me – with the song “Midnight, the Stars, and You” eerily playing in the background. Even if “Shawshank” were in the mix for this list, I’m not entirely sure if this masterful film still wouldn’t be at the very top – it’s that freakin’ good!

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