Another year, another film drawn from a Stephen King story: the King adaptation is a sub-genre that now encompasses more than 100 titles, running the gamut from disposable hackwork to cast-iron classics. The second film version of his peculiarly spelled shockfest Pet Sematary is out next week, and the jury’s still out on which group it will join – though it does seem a good occasion to trawl through the vast, bloody sea of King-related streaming options for the true keepers.
A few are obvious: Stanley Kubrick’s deathlessly haunting interpretation of The Shining (available on iTunes), of course, or the still-bracing sexual politics and adolescent ache of Brian De Palma’s Carrie (on Netflix). (Forget the crummy remake.) The same goes for the “serious” King standards, with their varnish of non-horror respectability: The Shawshank Redemption (Amazon Prime) is still rated the greatest film of all time by IMDb users (I can’t say I’m with them, reliably heart-stirring as it is), while Stand By Me (on Now TV) remains one of Hollywood’s most wistfully executed coming-of-age tales – if it feels over-familiar by this point, blame its legions of inferior imitators.
Move beyond those, however, and dozens of King-based curiosities and B-movies walk a more divisive line between trash and treasure. David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone (on Amazon’s Starz channel) remains undervalued, with its graceful melding of the director’s signature body-horror fixations and the author’s less kinky sense of the uncanny. Despite being a brand unto himself, King’s writing can weather a strong auteurist vision.
It’s a bit surprising that horror movie maestro George A Romero didn’t imprint himself more strongly on his one feature-length King adaptation, the ludicrous but shivery The Dark Half (Amazon Prime again), in which an author’s retired nom de plume comes back to haunt him. A restrained affair by both men’s standards, it was dismissed in 1993 but merits reconsideration.
A jauntier collaboration between the two was Creepshow (streaming on Chili), a King-scripted anthology film paying affectionate homage to spooky DC comic books of the 1950s. Intended in 1982 to be equal parts quaint and macabre, it has held up better than some more straight-faced King outings.
The 1980s were, of course, the best decade for primo King-derived schlock. Revolving around a deranged, vengeful dog and a deranged, vengeful car respectively, Cujo and Christine (both on Amazon) make for a juicily absurd double feature, the latter getting a lift from John Carpenter’s directorial vigour. Add the original, gaudily effective 1989 version of Pet Sematary (via Now TV), and it’s a party.
With almost all King adaptations, down to the outright crud of The Lawnmower Man or Cell – available to stream somewhere or other – it’s a shame that one of the best 21st-century additions to the fold, Frank Darabont’s relatively subtle, unsettling monster movie The Mist, isn’t among them. It’s been overshadowed, it seems, by Netflix’s sluggish miniseries version, though the streaming giant did far better in 2017 with Gerald’s Game, an anxious, glass-brittle psychothriller based on a tricky, internal novel, with a superb Carla Gugino in the lead.
Watch it with Dolores Claiborne (harder to find than some, but on iTunes), the other great, underseen and very adult King adaptation for the genre-agnostic – in which Kathy Bates (above), having already won an Oscar as a lunatic fan in the cheerfully grisly (and Netflixable) King thriller Misery, comprehensively outdid herself as a more ambiguously soured, windblown murder suspect. Indeed, those two performances are as good a measure as any of the tonal range covered by the author’s oeuvre on screen: though his name connotes a particular kind of terror, there’s a Stephen King film in the pile for just about anybody.
Also new on DVD and streaming
The Old Man and the Gun
Starring an ideally matched Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek, this mellow, melancholic autumn-years crime caper goes down like aged bourbon.
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Disney doubles down on the clever-clever techno-comedy of Wreck-It Ralph, with bright, exhausting results slathered in corporate self-branding.
An Impossible Love
(Curzon Artificial Eye, 15)
French director Catherine Corsini’s mother-daughter melodrama is an absorbing slow-burner, before emerging as a wrenching trauma study.
Edgar G Ulmer’s supremely slinky 1945 B-movie gets A-grade treatment from the Criterion Collection, its nasty pleasures polished and intact.
Non-Netflix subscribers finally have a chance to watch last year’s most essential sci-fi vision on DVD/Blu-ray. Alex Garland wraps rich ideas in cool, steely beauty.
A Sundance phenomenon that ultimately fizzled in cinemas, this vibrant, abrasive, uneven #MeToo-era update of the Salem witch trials may yet build a cult.
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