On Sunday, April 17th, B-D will be hosting a FEARnet (Channel 197 on Verizon FiOS, otherwise call 877-FEAR-247 to request FEARnet HD from your TV provider) marathon of five Stephen King movies – Christine (2pm), Sleepwalkers (4pm), Graveyard Shift (6pm), Thinner (8pm), and Silver Bullet (10pm) – and to celebrate reporter Chris Eggertsen has put together his list of the top ten cinematic monsters adapted from the novels, novellas, and short stories of the famed Master of Horror.
While much of King’s output has been disappointingly transferred from page to screen (cough, Dreamcatcher), there are luckily many examples of when it has worked, in those instances when Hollywood actually succeeded at giving terrifying flesh and blood presence to one of the author’s often bizarre evils.
See inside for the full list.
Stephen King understands both types of evils – the ordinary and the fanciful – which is part of why his stories have struck such a chord with the public since he first made the bestseller lists with Carrie back in 1974. He’s so good at what he does, in fact, that no matter what form his monsters take – whether they be of the fantastical (the vamps in ‘Salem’s Lot, the lycanthrope in Cycle of the Werewolf, the otherworldly creatures in The Mist) or of the mundane (the neighborhood dog in Cujo, the industrial laundry press machine in The Mangler, the ’58 Plymouth Fury in Christine) or of the just plain human varieties (Annie Wilkes in Misery, the tribal band of murderous children in Children of the Corn, the unassuming family man/serial killer in A Good Marriage) – he always manages to make them terrifying.
In the film adaptations of King’s books these monsters are often prone to losing much of their power on screen – often confirming the old adage that the scariest thing of all is what you don’t see (particularly when the filmmakers in question either a. don’t have the budget or b. simply lack the imagination to make what you do see appear all that convincing) – but in certain cases they’ve managed to work spectacularly well in making us fear that dark room down the hall…or the backseat of the car waiting silently in the parking lot…or maybe even the good friend we always thought we knew, but now we aren’t so sure. What are the best examples of these successful page-to-screen translations? There’s no way to come up with a definitive list – not everyone is scared of the same things, after all – but my own personal ten picks are below.
Monster: Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Tim Curry)
While the more gruesome aspects of the novel had to be significantly toned down for the miniseries version, one element that still managed to provoke nightmares was “Pennywise the Dancing Clown”, the most oft-recurring incarnation of the eponymous evil force in King’s book. While as a kid I was absolutely horrified at the very thought of Tim Curry’s sadistic wisecracker, I have to admit that when I watch the film now he isn’t nearly as scary as I remember (in my opinion the actor’s performance is a little too campy to elicit real terror). Nevertheless, as a purely visual embodiment of the near-universal fear of clowns – just why some parents continue to hire them as performers at their children’s birthday parties I’ll never understand – Pennywise definitely merits a spot on the list.
“Storm drain” scene:
Monster: Room 1408
“It’s an evil fucking room”, Sam Jackson’s Mr. Olin insists near the beginning of 1408, director Mikael Hafstrom’s slick adaptation of King’s short story. A bold statement indeed for an effects-driven Hollywood horror flick, and while it’s true that the movie is far too polished to truly succeed at getting under your skin, Hafstrom nevertheless manages to concoct some genuinely creepy imagery and potent jump scares to keep us thoroughly off-balance. In addition to the fact that Hafstrom so deftly builds up the room as an actual “character” in the early going, what makes the haunted suite such an effective villain is that it’s truly merciless, playing upon the psychology of Cusack’s character to the point of conjuring up a vision of his dead daughter, reducing him to tears as he holds her – and then turning her to ashes in his arms. Now that’s pretty damn cold.
Monster: Kurt Barlow (Reggie Nalder)
As opposed to the suave and very human-looking version of Barlow (aka “the master vampire”) in King’s novel, in Tobe Hooper’s miniseries the character is presented as a speechless, almost demonic looking monster with enormous jagged fangs and glowing yellow eyes. As producer Richard Kobritz said at the time, the filmmakers were looking to the more grotesque Nosferatu version of the vampire instead of the sophisticated Lugosi-type that came later, and in that interpretation they succeeded. It’s hard to term Salem’s Lot a truly scary film – after all, it was run on broadcast television in the late `70s (though there is a feature-length version with added gore) – but Nalder’s vamp has more than a shade of Max Schreck’s near-animalistic Count Orlok in it, and the effective makeup no doubt gave a lot of kids nightmares back in the day.
“Meet Mr. Barlow”:
Monster: Gage Creed (Miko Hughes)
Oh little Miko Hughes, where have ye gone? Making his film debut in Mary Lambert’s adaptation of King’s Pet Sematary, the child actor made an indelible impression as the undead Gage Creed, who comes back from beyond the grave after Daddy, distraught following the boy’s tragic death beneath the wheels of a semi, foolishly re-buries him at the mystical Indian burial ground nearby in hopes of raising him from the dead. Harmless, right? Wrong. With Hughes’ angelic looks serving as a potent counterpoint to the character’s third act penchant for slicing the Achilles’ tendons of lovable old men, the then-three-year-old actor impressively managed to affect a blank-eyed portrait of evil as he mercilessly slashed his way back into Mummy and Daddy’s lives. This unholy alliance of sweet and sour must have made any parent watching ponder the deeply uncomfortable question: what would I do if my toddler came at me with a bloody scalpel and a demonic gleam in his eye?
Montage of Gage scenes from the film:
Monster: Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates)
It’s no mistake that Kathy Bates won an Oscar for her portrayal of deranged “#1 fan” Annie Wilkes, as it’s truly one of the greatest cinematic interpretations of a Stephen King character ever. What makes her performance so convincing is the actress’ understanding that, belying Annie’s brawny physical presence, she is at her core a sympathetic and deeply wounded middle-aged woman driven mad by a life filled with disappointment and her own self-imposed isolation. Different from King’s more otherworldly villains, the character is rooted firmly in a reality we can all recognize – a reality capable of inflicting the sort of pain that can sometimes transform ordinary people into monsters.
The “Hobbling Scene”:
The rabid St. Bernard in Lewis Teague’s underrated adaptation (King himself is a particular fan of the film) is so frightening not necessarily for the physical appearance of the dog himself – though with his dripping jaws and imposing size he’s certainly an intimidating presence – but rather due to Teague and cinematographer Jan de Bont’s sure hand at crafting some brutally effective attack scenes and a sun-drenched atmosphere of throat-clutching dread. Maybe the most important components of all, however, are Dee Wallace and Danny Pintauro’s pitch-perfect performances as the frantic mother and son attempting to survive the ravenous dog’s ceaseless attacks in a dusty Pinto. There isn’t a moment where their fear doesn’t feel 100% genuine.
“Cujo” Segment on Bravo’s “Scariest Movie Moments”:
Monster: Margaret White (Piper Laurie)
It’s often said that real life is scarier than anything a Hollywood writer could dream up, which is part of what makes the character of Margaret White so terrifying in Carrie. We’ve all encountered at least one religious fundamentalist in our lives, with their creepy blank stares and condemnations of eternal hellfire, so it isn’t as if no one like her actually exists in the world. And while the character was certainly vivid on the page, she reached full bloom as portrayed in an Academy Award-nominated performance by Piper Laurie, delightfully over-the-top as the vicious, Bible-thumping Mommie Dearest of our collective childhood nightmares. In the hands of a lesser actress lines like “I can see your dirty pillows” might have come off silly, but Laurie delivered them all with such conviction you couldn’t help but feel a chill up your spine.
“They’re All Gonna Laugh at You!”:
Monster: Kurt Dussander/Arthur Denker (Ian McKellen)
There is no real-life horror story from the last 100 years as mind-numbingly awful as the Holocaust, and King used that terrible chapter in our history as the linchpin of his novella Apt Pupil, in which a teenage boy discovers that an escaped Nazi war criminal is living in his suburban neighborhood under a false identity. Obsessed with the Holocaust, the boy threatens to expose Dussander if he doesn’t spill all the details of his horrible acts during the war, and over the next several months their relationship begins drawing out the darkest tendencies inside them both. As Dussander in the adaptation, Ian McKellen gives a subtly unnerving performance as a man reconnecting with the horrors he committed in his past and finding that he liked how they made him feel. The film itself is too glossy to capture the sheer creeping dread of King’s story, but McKellen’s performance makes it worth a watch. There are few moments as queasy as when the man dons his old SS uniform and begins enthusiastically marching in formation as if it were 1941 all over again.
Monster: Mist creatures
King’s original novella about a group of stranded small townsfolk confronting a supernatural apocalypse in a supermarket is pretty damn terrifying, and director Frank Darabont thankfully didn’t disappoint in his translation of the story to the big screen. For all its other strengths The Mist simply wouldn’t have succeeded were it not for the effectiveness of the creature design, featuring as it does a host of Lovecraftian monstrosities -skull-faced spiders and insects, jaw-snapping pterodactyl-type beasts, a giant crab-like monster – that did an admirable job of making my skin crawl. It was the appearance of that enormous six-legged monster near the end of the movie, though, moving through near-impenetrable layers of otherworldly fog, which for me proved the most deeply unsettling image of the entire film.
Giant Creature Scene:
Villain: Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson)/The Overlook Hotel
Though King notoriously hated Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of The Shining, in one interview even the author had to admit that at times he found the film “dreadfully unsettling”. Though it wasn’t faithful to the book, Nicholson brought a dangerous quality to Torrance from his very first appearance on screen, hinting that the character was perhaps perched at the edge of the abyss from the very beginning. That portrayal doesn’t jibe with the novel’s characterization of him as an essentially sane and decent individual driven to madness by outside forces, but it’s perhaps a more frightening idea to consider that the Overlook – brilliantly evoked as a monster all its own by Kubrick’s meticulous cinematography – is merely sensing and zeroing in on the man’s inherently malignant nature. The scariest scene in Kubrick’s film for me has always been the skin-crawling exchange between Jack and Danny in the bedroom near the middle of the movie, in which the son, perched uneasily upon his father’s knee, asks, “You wouldn’t ever hurt mommy and me, would you?” In the way he poses the question, it’s pretty clear he already knows the answer.
“You wouldn’t ever hurt mommy and me, would you?”: