Far as batting averages go, the cinema of Stephen King is pretty low. There are over 60 movies based on the horror king’s books and short stories. Of these, we’d say two are masterpieces. Four are terrific but fall short of the M-word. Three are flawed but interesting. At least one is a bad movie classic. The rest are mediocre or worse, and some are among the worst motion pictures ever made.
That’s about 50 non-good or even bad movies; it’s a cottage industry that mostly churns out curdled product. And we’re not even sure where “The Dark Tower” — based on the first in his epic, weirdo sci-fi/Western/fantasy series — will land, though that it’s not being screened for critics until almost 24 hours before its release does not inspire confidence.
But it’s all been worth it for the ones that hit the bullseye. Even if King’s cinematic oeuvre is a little close for comfort to the old line about 100 monkeys with typewriters, he did ensure we got a great Stanley Kubrick film. And Brian De Palma’s first monster hit. And two excellent Rob Reiner films, back when Rob Reiner was a solid maker of first-rate entertainments. Here’s the best of Stephen King at the movies:
He hit the ground running: King’s first novel became a hit movie only two years after it was published, turning Sissy Spacek into a star and giving Piper Laurie one of her flashiest roles. Both were even nominated for Oscars. It also made Brian De Palma into a name filmmaker. The director’s career had been in dire straits up to that point, but “Carrie” helped him acquire the budgets he needed to give his movie-mad kid-in-a-candy-store shtick extra kick. “Carrie” was lousy with split-screen, with tracking shots, with slo-mo, with horndog asides, with emotions both campy yet deeply sincere. It’s a delirious joyride, and it set the bar for King adaptations so high it’s a wonder it’s not even the best one.
Don’t give King too much credit for the best Stephen King movie. He may have written a ghastly book, but Stanley Kubrick treated it more like a blueprint. A lot of the plot, including most of the ending, was changed. A mallet was upgraded to an axe. Convoluted ghost business was replaced by weirdo ambiguity. What was literal on the page became hypnotic and scary, precisely because Kubrick smartly favored style and mood over sense. And like a lot of Kubricks, it was hated upon released — Kubrick even got a Razzie nomination — only to become a classic, so beloved it spawned an entire documentary, “Room 237,” about hare-brained and totally nutso conspiracy theories.
TERRIFIC BUT NOT QUITE M-WORDS
The key to great Stephen King movies is simple: They need great directors. King can bang out a rainforest-killing tome by himself inside his Maine manse, but when they’re turned into films, they need collaborators equal to or better than him, to punch them into a different shape. King called the late George A. Romero, the father of the zombie movie, his favorite partner-in-crime, and they worked in tandem on this anthology of spooky-campy tales, none of them based on previous King work. It’s the silliest entry on either’s CV, not that interested in anything beyond scoring a gory laugh. But it’s stem-to-stern fun, from the zombie dad who kills his duplicitous family to the E.G. Marshall one-man show about a rich agoraphobe who meets his just desserts.
‘The Dead Zone’
Again: It’s all about the director. For David Cronenberg, tackling King is a step-down; the director’s own films are far more disturbing than anything the best-seller has ever dreamt up. But even as a director-for-hire job, “The Dead Zone” gets it just right. It’s more a character study with a killer hook and a boffo ending, with Christopher Walken haunted by predictive visions. Then again, not even Walken could have seen that the ending — in which a dangerous politician (Martin Sheen) who will destroy the planet loses after a major campaign trail gaffe — was in no way accurate.
‘Stand by Me’ and ‘Misery’
They don’t have much in common, except for being King movies directed by Rob Reiner and being based on novels that show different sides of their author — more psychological and grounded. “Stand by Me” isn’t even a little horror, though it is about boys lighting into the woods to locate a corpse. It could have been King (and Reiner — up till then known for comedies like “This is Spinal Tap” and, of course, being Meathead) selling out. It wasn’t. And neither was “Misery,” a very nasty, very funny movie in which James Caan plays a fine, straight man foil to Kathy Bates’ whirling dervish of an Oscar-winning turn.
FLAWED BUT INTERESTING
It only took four films — namely with 1983’s lackluster “Cujo” — for the wheels to start to coming off of the Stephen King Movie Machine. John Carpenter tried his best with the one about the killer car, and though it’s no great shakes, there’s enough pleasure here to get it over the finish line. Once again, with feeling: It’s all about the director, even when even someone like John Carpenter can only make it bronze, not silver or gold.
‘The Dark Half’
George A. Romero returned to King duties, this time doing a straight-up adaptation. Romero would seem at sea in a movie that, like “The Dead Zone,” is more a character study than a spooker, with Timothy Hutton as a King-esque novelist who’s somehow birthed a murderous doppelganger. But Romero was always about more than blood and guts. He was almost about more than razor-sharp satire. And though “The Dark Half” has nothing on the superficially similar “Martin” — which also follows one character towards an OTT finish — it’s respectable and easy to underrate.
We’d never say this was a great movie, but we have a huge soft spot for it. Quentin Tarantino and Roger Ebert have our backs. The part where our werewolf anti-hero (future “Twin Peaks” alum Everett McGill!) wipes out a pitchfork-wielding mob in the thick of fog, even chopping a poor dude’s face in half vertically, is something we saw when we were far, far too young to see such sights and not leave traumatized.
‘The Running Man’
We’d really never say this was a great movie; it’s barely competent. But we also can’t deny a movie from 1987 that’s set in a dystopian 2017, where the world economy has collapsed, the U.S. is a totalitarian police state and the masses are addicted to terrible television that awakens their worst instincts. We also can’t resist ’80s Ah-nuld.
THE BAD CINEMA CLASSIC: ‘Dreamcatcher’
We remember seeing “Dreamcatcher” with the same fondness we do first seeing genuinely great classics like “Citizen Kane” or “Satantango.” It has “ass-weasels.” It has an alien who inexplicably speaks with a British accent. It has a chase set inside someone’s brain. It has Thomas Jane using a gun as a cellphone. It has Donnie Wahlberg threatening the villain by invoking Scooby-Doo. Like the best bad movies, it keeps finding new and inventive ways to be terrible, and it’s never, ever boring. It’s so jam-packed we almost forgot to mention a totally nuts Morgan Freeman talking about “Friends” for some reason! This movie, man…
NOT ON THIS LIST: ‘The Shawshank Redemption’
No. And that goes double for other Frank Darabont King adaptations “The Green Mile” and “The Mist.” Though “The Mist” is at least trashily compelling until its twist ending, which isn’t in the source.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge