Master of horror, Stephen King, celebrated his 67th birthday this past Sunday, and hey, we’re already creeping up on that spooky, Halloweeny time of the year, so what better time to take a look back at King’s greatest contribution to pop culture? No, I’m not talking about his books — I’m talking about his vast catalog of ’80s movies!
A whopping 14 movies based on King’s writings came out between 1980 and 1989, and they range from some of the most ridiculous schlock you’ll ever see, to some of the best movies, horror or otherwise, ever made. Here’s a definitive ranking of Stephen King’s entire ’80s movie catalog…
Some Stephen King movies are great, some of them are awful, and some of them are just…kind of dull. Given the choice, I’ll always take hilariously abysmal over boring, so these uninspired adaptations find themselves on the bottom of the list even if, technically, they might be better produced than some higher-ranked films.
14) Cat’s Eye (1985)
I barely remember anything this anthology, other than the fact that it’s tied together by a not-scary-at-all framing device about a cat going on an Incredible Journey-like adventure for, uh, some reason. Oh, and Cujo also makes a cameo. Take out a couple bad words and Cat’s Eye could easily serve as three middling episodes of Goosebumps.
13) Firestarter (1984)
Admittedly Firestarter does pack an absurd number of delicious explosions, but when things aren’t going boom, it’s not worth watching. In between the explosions, the movie is laden down with way too much blather, and it never even approaches atmospheric or scary. Just a bottom of the barrel “evil kid” movie.
12) Cujo (1983)
Cujo is a weird in both movie and book form. Basically, the “scary” portion of the story, in which a mom and her son are trapped in a car by a rabid dog, could, maybe, fill out a brief novella or 20-minute short film. Unfortunately the book is over 300-pages, and the movie is 90 minutes, so both have to pad shit out with endless excruciating family drama and kids seeing monsters in their closets. I’m an absolute wuss about big dogs, so Cujo should be right up my alley, but I can barely make it through it.
11) Creepshow 2 (1987)
The first Creepshow was a great, lovingly made horror anthology — unfortunately by the time Creepshow 2 came along, director George A. Romero and, apparently, all of Stephen King’s inspiration were long gone. The movie kicks off with a story about a cigar store Indian coming to life, and somehow the two following stories are even less terror-inducing. Creepshow 2 had some of the best VHS box art of all time, but the movie inside the box is not worth your time.
So Bad They’re Good Tier
Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. Nobody makes a bad horror movie quite like Stephen King. When that incredible imagination that’s been used to create some of the most memorable horror stories of all time goes wrong, it goes really, ridiculously wrong. The movies in this tier aren’t just laughably bad, they’re all-time batsh*t bonkers.
10) Christine (1983)
Basically, if a Stephen King movie involves killer cars in any way, you know you’re in for a good, stupid time. John Carpenter helmed Christine, and the legendary director tries to make the best of a bad situation, but the fact remains that a 1958 Plymouth Fury is a really, really silly choice for a horror movie villain.
9) Silver Bullet (1985)
Silver Bullet is perhaps the least remembered film of King’s 80s oeuvre, but it’s definitely worth a look. At the center of the movie is one of Gary Busey’s best unhinged performances ever, but there are other delights, such as Cory Haim as a handicapped kid with a supercharged, chrome-coated wheelchair called the Silver Bullet. Yes, the titular Silver Bullet is a souped-up wheelchair. Acclaimed storyteller Stephen King everyone!
8) Maximum Overdrive (1986)
The ultimate argument against giving Stephen King more control over his movies. King both wrote and directed Maximum Overdrive (while incredibly high) and the result was one of the most laughable horror movies of all time. The concept — vehicles and other machines come to life and try to kill everyone — is something a six-year-old might come up with, and honestly, that six-year-old probably would have executed the idea about as well as King. Still, Maximum Overdrive is absolutely worth a watch for its killer Coke machines and scenes of Lisa Simpson being menaced by a semi-truck with the Green Goblin’s face on the front.
7) Children of the Corn (1984)
Children of the Corn almost defies description. The characters act like no human being has, or ever will act, and the movie’s plot throws all narrative conventions straight in the woodchipper. The movie begins with our hero, a doctor no less, running over a child, tossing the corpse in the back of his car and forgetting about it for the rest of the movie, and things just get more insane from there, as they face off against the dorkiest cult of evil children in movie history. Ultimately though, the most surprising thing about this movie isn’t its amazing badness, but the fact that it somehow spawned eight sequels.
Legitimately Good Tier
Okay, now we’re into the good stuff. No irony needed to enjoy the rest of this list — these are legitimately good, scary, must-watch films.
6) The Running Man (1987)
I’ve always had a soft spot for The Running Man — I mean, the movie is basically dystopian pro-wrestling starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the future’s John Cena. How could you not love that? Watching Arnie kill one ’80s wrestler or B-level action star after another just hits all the happy centers in my brain. Oh, and it’s a Stephen King movie! Doesn’t really feel like one, but his name’s always right there in the credits, so I’ll take the movie’s word for it.
5) Creepshow (1982)
The one time King really did the horror anthology thing right. Creepshow is a loving tribute to old EC horror comics from the ’50s, and King and director George A. Romero strike the perfect balance between campy and creepy. All the stories are very short and straightforward (the movie packs five tales, a prologue and epilogue into two hours) but that just means they’re easy to follow, and most feature a killer (heh!) punchline. The perfect movie to keep playing in the background at a sleepover.
4) Pet Sematary (1989)
Pet Sematary features a lot of King obsessions common in his lesser movies — over the top New England caricatures, family drama, ancient Indian curses, menacing cars, evil cats, evil kids — but for whatever reason, here it really works. Probably because this movie really goes for the jugular with all these King tropes. The evil kid doesn’t just stand around looking creepy, he’s slicing and dicing people up with scalpels, and that evil cat is a complete bastard. At first you think Pet Sematary is going to be standard issue, bland King fare, but it turns out to be a pretty solid gut punch of a movie.
3) Stand By Me (1986)
Stand By Me isn’t strictly a horror movie, although it is packed with some of the most indelible, disturbing scenes ever. The bit with the leeches is more revolting than the entire Saw series combined. Guys, one was in his underpants. Ugh. Stand By Me turns on a dime from lighthearted nostalgia-fest, to twisted boys’ adventure, to the stuff of nightmares. It’s one of the few times King’s scattered storytelling has been truly captured and made to work on film.
2) The Dead Zone (1983)
The Dead Zone was the one time the worlds of Stephen King and David Cronenberg crashed together, with predictably excellent results. Cronenberg takes all the usual King goofiness and bleeds it out, or transforms it into off-putting oddness. Even Christopher Walken isn’t too wacky in it. Don’t get me wrong, he’s still very much Christopher Walken, but his weirdness is effectively harnessed. A stark, chilling thriller from beginning to end.
1) The Shining (1980)
And heeeeere’s our top entry! Saw this one coming, didn’t you? King himself famously hates Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, but then King also directed Maximum Overdrive, so he doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on. One of the most re-watchable, obsessed over movies ever made, every single shot of The Shining is a work of art. With the exception of maybe the original Alien, no other movie manages to create such a sustained, choking sense of dread. At times the movie itself seems to be haunted. Whether King likes it or not, Kubrick’s The Shining will remain long after everything else King has been associated with is forgotten.
Well, there you have it. How would you rank King’s ’80s films? Oh, and before you bring it up, It was a TV miniseries, not a movie. Also it came out in 1990. But yeah, I agree — Pennywise. F*cking brrrrr.