Stephen King, the master of horror, has been publishing stories since 1967 and is still prolific to this day. Despite being active over several generations, his work is as important and popular now as it ever has been.
His stories stand among the most adapted of any writer, so it’s no surprise that some titles have fallen into obscurity or are not remembered as a King story altogether.
We know the classics like The Shawshank Redemption, Misery, The Shining and Stand by Me, but what are the best lesser known movies?
To celebrate the release of his scary new thriller Cell we take a look at 10 of the best lesser known Stephen King adaptations…
The Dead Zone (1983)
Directed by legendary horror filmmaker, David Cronenberg, The Dead Zone is one of the finest adaptations of a Stephen King novel to grace the silver screen. The story follows Johnny Smith, a young schoolteacher, who suffers a headache during a date with a colleague and decides to go home and rest. As he drives home through stormy weather, Johnny has a car accident that leaves him in a coma for five years. He awakens under the care of neurologist Dr.Weizak and soon discovers he now has the psychic ability to learn a person’s past, present and future through physical contact with them.
To say that this film has been completely forgotten is an exaggeration but it certainly isn’t as iconic as it deserves and has slipped past recent audiences. Not only a great film, it’s also one of King’s best novels, setting the tone for future work and being the first setting for his regularly used fictitious ‘Castle Rock’ town, featured again in The Dark Half, Cujo and Stand by Me. With David Cronenberg (The Fly, A History of Violence) at the helm and starring the brilliant Christopher Walken (The Deer Hunter) and Martin Sheen (Apocalypse Now), The Dead Zone is a must see, not only for Stephen King fans but all cinephiles.
This movie did for dogs what Jaws did for sharks. Donna Trenton (Dee Wallace, The Howling) is a frustrated housewife whose life is in turmoil after her husband Vic learns about her affair. When she begins having difficulties with her car, she visits the local repair shop run by Joe Camber and his family. Joe’s son, Brett, is a young boy whose only companion is a St. Bernard, named Cujo. Unfortunately the dog is bitten by a bat with rabies and his behaviour begins to change. While the dog begins to succumb to the disease, Brett and his mother leave town with Joe left alone with the cantankerous canine. Donna and her son drive over for more repairs and also become trapped by the rabid beast.
Cujo is classic King, taking something banal and turning it into the stuff of nightmares. This is also a rare case of hoping someone kills the family pet. What helps make the film so chilling is the use of practical effects. During production they used five St. Bernards, a Rottweiler, a mechanical head, and a man in a dog costume. Using animals, as always, made for a number of problems during filming; namely the dogs needing to have their tails tied down because they would be constantly wagging due to their enjoyment of the filming process.
Cat’s Eye (1985)
Anthology feature Cat’s Eye begins with a cat being chased by a disheveled St. Bernard and nearly run over by a 1958 Plymouth Fury (clear Stephen King references you might guess). The cat hears the distress of a young girl but is simultaneously captured by an employee at Quitters, Inc., which leads to the appropriately titled first story, Quitters, Inc. This section centres on a man named Dick Morrison who enlists the help of an unconventional clinic to help him quit smoking. What seems like a harmless deal soon escalates and Dick finds himself and his family in serious danger. The second story, entitled The Ledge, follows a gambler who finds himself competing for his life with a crime boss (who previously acquired the titular cat) when he is asked to circumambulate the penthouse exterior. After the events of the second story, the cat escapes and makes its way to the child he heard at the start, which leads on to the final story, The General. Here we follow the cat who tries to protect his new owner from an evil presence, despite the parent’s reservations.
The three part horror was directed by Lewis Teague (The Jewel of the Nile, Cujo) and written for the screen by Stephen King himself. The film is particularly appealing to Stephen King fans due to the amalgamation of the authors earlier works (Quitters, Inc .&The Ledge) with references classic King tales, plus a new story (The General) written by King for the movie. That being said, you don’t have to be an expert on the author to enjoy this outing. The film blends horror, drama and comedy effortlessly, meaning there really is something for all moviegoers in this now somewhat rare curio. It’s worth noting that the film stars James Woods (Casino), Robert Hayes (Airplane!) and Drew Barrymore (Donnie Darko).
Silver Bullet (1985)
In the spring of 1976, inhabitants of the peaceful town of Tarker’s Mills are distressed by a chain of violent murders and coax the local Sheriff to investigate and find those responsible. Meanwhile, a local crippled boy, Marty, has just received a new motorized wheelchair from his Uncle Red and one night sneaks out to a remote bridge to set off some fireworks. It is there he discovers the route of all the grisly murders when he is suddenly attacked by a hairy creature. Luckily, Marty manages to injure the creature and escapes. With the new found information, Marty desperately tries to convince the locals that someone in the town is a werewolf!
This film is as ridiculous as it is brilliant. Roger Ebert described it as, “either the worst movie ever made from a Stephen King story, or the funniest”, we prefer to think of it as the latter. You can look forward to seeing a crippled boy ride a wheelchair-motorbike hybrid and priests trying to run over kids. The film delivers on the bizarre but also manages to incorporate some genuinely scary moments as well. It’s perfect when you want a horror with some ridiculously enjoyable moments that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Plus Gary Busy is in it!
The Running Man (1987)
In the year 2017, the world economy has collapsed and the great freedoms of the United States are no longer present. No, it’s not far off! With full control over the media, the government attempts to suppress the nation’s yearning for freedom by broadcasting a number of game shows in which convicted criminals fight for their lives. The most popular of these programs being The Running Man. Ex-police officer, Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger no less), finds himself being framed for mass murder by his fellow officers and is subsequently forced into the dystopian show as a contestant with three other convicts. The group of offenders must fight their way through a squad of murderous gladiators and search through the ruins of L.A for the resistance in the hopes of finally broadcasting the truth about the government.
Now this film hasn’t faded into obscurity at all but many don’t know the original story was written by King under the pseudonym, Richard Bachman. If you have seen the movie you can probably guess that it doesn’t draw too much from the original source material. King himself stated “It was totally out of my hands. I didn’t have anything to do with making it… It doesn’t have much in common with the novel at all, except the title”. But if Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining has taught us anything it’s that an adaptation can be drastically different from its source and still work. Now by no means is this movie a classic in the traditional sense, but if you’re a fan of Schwarzenegger, dystopian futures and camp ’80s movies then you should watch this sci-fi hit immediately. Start running, man.
Pet Sematary (1989)
Based on the novel of the same name, it’s said by King himself to be the only story he wrote that really scared him. This chilling tale follows Louis and Rachel Creed and their two young children who settle in to a house that sits next door to a pet cemetery which, unbeknownst to the family, was built on an ancient Indian burial ground. Their mysterious new neighbour, Jud Crandall, shows Louis the dark power of the cemetery when he resurrects the Creed family’s cat, which was killed in an accident. However, when the cat returns, he is an evil shell of himself, attacking Louis and smelling of decomposition. Louis decides to hide the dark secret and never return to the cemetery, that is until a family tragedy compels him to do so.
Pet Sematary was the first time King both converted one of his novels into a screenplay and played a significant part in the filming. He was able to be on set almost every day as production was only 20 minutes from his home in Bangor, Maine. There is still content from the book that the film neglects but this time we can assume that those have been a conscious decisions by the director, Mary Lambert, alongside Stephen King. Incidentally, Lambert nailed the casting decision for the infamous character, Zelda. She wanted the character to frighten audiences, but didn’t think that a 13-year old girl was scary enough. Her idea was to cast a man, Andrew Hubatsek, in the role so there would be something “off” about Zelda. She was right, and the film still has a lot of passionate fans today.
Dolores Claiborne (1995)
We follow Dolores Claiborne who has spent nearly a quarter of a century looking after a mean-spirited woman on a small island off the coast of Maine. When the woman is found dead after falling down a flight of stairs, Dolores is considered the biggest suspect. Word of the affair reaches Dolores’ estranged daughter, Selina, a New York-based journalist, who flies to Maine to find out what really happened. Though the strong and tough-talking Dolores stands her ground, the local detective is convinced that there’s more to her story than she’s letting on.
Dolores Clairborne was directed by Taylor Hackford (The Devil’s Advocate) and stars Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight), Christopher Plummer (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and Kathy Bates (Misery). This story is different to King’s usual horror style but to great effect, as he creates a great sense of the disparity in a dysfunctional family in this extremely effective thriller. Kathy Bates delivers yet another intense performance in what is both her second Stephen King adaptation (after Misery) and notably she has mentioned it to be her personal favourite film role. Incidentally, King wrote the character of Dolores with Kathy Bates in mind, so it’s hardly surprising that she absolutely killed it… so to speak!
Apt Pupil (1998)
It’s the 1980’s in Southern California, Todd Bowden is a bright high school student who notices a resemblance between a Nazi war criminal, named Kurt Dussander, and the old man who lives down his street. Todd determines that he is the ‘Sturmbannführer’ he had read about at school and decides to confront him. However, Bowden is obsessed with Nazism and the atrocities they committed and instead wants the ex-SS officer to tell him stories of the crimes he committed and relive his past. At first Dussander refuses but Bowden threatens to reveal his secret to the authorities and he has no choice but to comply. As time passes, the boy and the old man spend a lot of time together and their relationship begins to stir malevolence in both of them.
There had been several attempts to adapt this novel over a decade before. In 1984, James Mason agreed to star, but died from a heart attack before filming could begin. Soon after, Richard Burton was considered as his replacement, but he also died before he could accept the part. Almost 10 years later, director Brian Singer, hot off of the success of The Usual Suspects, requests to film an adaption of the novel. At first Singer was resistant to cast Sir Ian McKellen as Dussander because he was British and nearly 20 years younger than the character. But after Singer raved to McKellen about a performance by an actor he had recently seen in Cold Comfort Farm, McKellen informed him that he was that very same actor and he was clearly perfect for the role. McKellen received wide acclaim for his astounding performance which just came a few short years before his worldwide fame as the wizard Gandalf. He stars opposite the talented Brad Renfro who we sadly lost at the age of only 25 in 2008.
Cynical and skeptical writer Mike Enslin writes books evaluating supernatural phenomena in hotels, graveyards and other haunted places, usually debunking the mystery. While writing his latest book, he travels from Los Angeles to New York to spend one night in the Dolphin Hotel’s cursed room 1408, which is permanently unavailable to guests. The reluctant manager objects to his request to stay in the room and reveals that more than fifty guests have died in the evil room. Mike threatens the manager and promises to sue the hotel if he is not allowed to stay, which works. Later in the night he finds out that once the guests of room 1408 checked in they might never leave the room alive…
Directed by Mikael Håfström (Escape Plan) and starring John Cusack (Being John Malkovich, 2012) and Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction, The Hateful Eight), it is a refreshing addition to horror, especially at a time when the genre was dominated by so called ‘torture porn’ titles. In the classic Stephen King way the story goes for psychological scares instead of standard body horror, which resonates long after. Interestingly, King created the first few pages of 1408 for his non-fiction book, On Writing, as an example of how to revise a first draft. He quickly found himself captivated by the story and ended up not only finishing a complete draft, but adapting it for an audio-book compilation of short stories and of course licensing it for this well received film.
In this highly anticipated adaptation of the best-selling 2006 novel by Stephen King, Clay Riddell (John Cusack, Identity, Con Air) is returning home when a mysterious worldwide pulse goes out, turning everyone on a mobile phone into ravenous predators, later coined “phoners”. Escaping the initial outbreak, he teams up with Tom (Samuel L. Jackson, Django Unchained), Alice (Isabelle Fuhrman, Orphan) and several other survivors who decide to make their way to Kashwak, rumoured to be a cellphone free area and where Clay’s son has fled to. Together the group must travel across the devastated American Countryside and avoid the bloodthirsty creatures that hunt them.
With Cell, Stephen King has found a way to put a modern twist on the zombie genre opting for more of a social and technological metaphor much like George A. Romero did in his iconic “Dead” series. Here, the zombies represent how people’s lives can be completely taken over by their electronic devices by devolving them into an aggressive caricature of ourselves. Cell also marks the second time Cusack and Jackson have appeared in a Stephen King adaptation (after 1408). Dial in for fresh Stephen King scares this Summer.
Signature Entertainment Presents CELL at Cinemas and on Demand from Friday 26th August, 2015.