There have been nearly 100 Stephen King films (over 100 if you count his sequels without source material, and his series), but not all of them have been made equal. Some are absolute masterpieces of cinema— in horror, drama, and even family sagas. Others are masterpieces of nothing other than being cheesy, over-the-top, and ridiculous.
Since his rise to becoming the most prominent horror novelist of our time in the ‘70s, Stephen King’s works have been adapted to film time and time again, because they typically bring in a lot of money when attached to an author with such prestige.
We’ve put together this list of 10 Stephen King movies that will scare the pants off anyone, even nowadays, and 10 that couldn’t scare a two-year-old…
20 Scary: Carrie (1976)
Some movies should never be remade. The original Carrie (1976) was Stephen King’s first film adaptation, and it’s still one of his best. Brian DePalma’s version stars Sissy Spacek as the titular character, and Piper Laurie as her abusive mother, plus a cast of cruel youngsters. When the pranks push Carrie too far, the film delves into sheer terror. The film perfectly captures the evils of the teenage experience, mixed with religious oppression.
19 Not Scary: Thinner (1996)
This laughable excuse for a King adaptation has another interesting premise that fails to deliver. Robert John Burke plays a corrupt, heavyset lawyer who accidentally kills an old gypsy woman with his car. The gypsy’s widower curses him to get thinner every day, until he’s emaciated. The film is more like a cruel joke than actual drama or horror, and the fat suit that Burke wears is utterly ridiculous in this day and age, making it hard to take the rest of the film seriously.
18 Scary: The Shining (1980)
Considered King’s horror film masterpiece, even though he famously disapproved of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation. The Shining is a creepy slow burn that shows the dissolution of a perfect marriage. It comes with insidiously scary moments, madness, and supernatural forces. The camerawork is next level, capturing some truly unthinkable moments. Some consider it the scariest movie ever made, and it’s stood the test of time even 40 years later.
17 Not Scary: 1922 (2017)
One of King’s newer adaptations, the Netflix original 1922 just couldn’t carry its own weight. Thomas Jane plays a farmer plotting to kill his wife, but his comeuppance is ironically the highlight of the film. It plays out like a “radio true-crime drama” (via thewrap.com), it’s way too long, and it’s not scary enough. Also, Jane has a very odd and unnecessary accent, which doesn’t help the film at all.
16 Scary: Misery (1990)
This film catapulted Kathy Bates into super-stardom and earned her an Oscar for her incredible, insane performance. Misery remains the only King adaptation to ever win an Oscar. It features a mentally disturbed nurse who kidnaps her favorite author after a car crash and forces him to make her a fan-fiction. It’s masterfully suspenseful and frightening, and anyone who’s seen it will always grimace when they hear the word “hobbling.”
15 Not Scary: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
We could mention terrible King film adaptations that also aren’t scary, but why do that when we can mention amazing King adaptations that aren’t scary? The Shawshank Redemption does have some psychologically tough moments, but the story of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) and Red (Morgan Freeman) in the violent, corrupt prison of Shawshank ends up being one of King’s best, with unforgettable performances and a dramatic story.
14 Scary: Gerald’s Game (2017)
Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood help make one of Stephen King’s newer film adaptations into an intense, nightmarish experience. Gerald’s Game revolves around a woman who’s handcuffed to a bed (purposefully) to spice up her sex life, but then her husband dies from a heart attack, leaving her there. This puzzling journey might go on too long, but it’s filled with suspense and scares that will make your heart thump.
13 Not Scary: Dreamcatcher (2003)
Stephen King stories are crazy, and Dreamcatcher is one of his craziest. Unfortunately, this film featuring Thomas Jane, Timothy Olyphant, Jason Kee, and Damian Lewis just didn’t hold up, despite having an all-star ensemble. The childhood friends with psychic powers are humanity’s only hope, because an alien race is about to take over Earth. It’s too absurd, too ridiculous, and too corny to be considered good, or scary.
12 Scary: It: Chapter One (2017)
The re-adaptation of the 1989 miniseries It became an instant horror classic when it hit theaters, breaking all sorts of box office records in the meantime (like having the best opening box office of any horror film in history.) Bill Skarsgard gives Tim Curry a run for his money as Pennywise, filling the screen with gripping terror, shocking scares and surprises, and an impeccable cast.
11 Not Scary: The Mangler (1995)
Thewrap.com has named The Mangler the worst Stephen King film adaptation of all time, at #42. Tobe Hooper’s adaptation about a haunted laundry machine (yes, we’re serious) is overly bloody and bizarre, but also overly campy, unrealistic, overacted, and scattered. Even Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund, couldn’t save the film from dismal results. It can be scary at times, but these days it’s completely outdated.
10 Scary: Cujo (1983)
This film about a deadly, rabid St. Bernard stalking a woman trapped in her car with her son is harrowing, frightening, and simple. This masterpiece of horror keeps a single location, with a simple plot, but maintains the suspense throughout its entirety, as the mother and son learn they’re going to die unless they do something drastic. Dee Wallace gives one of the great horror performances in this classic.
9 Not Scary: Cell (2016)
John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson team up for a second time in this 2016 sci-fi drama that falls flat. It’s about two people alive during a psychic zombie virus outbreak, which sounds promising, but the concept had already been done to death by the time Cell hit theaters. The characters are weak, the mythology is laughable and decidedly not scary, and the viewer turnout was nonexistent, leading the film to badly flop— and for good reason.
8 Scary: The Mist (2007)
Frank Darabont, who finally makes a film not set in a prison, did one of King’s most frightening adaptations with 2007’s The Mist. Thomas Jane and his son are trapped in a grocery store after a mysterious mist envelops their town. Cue the horror, the unspeakable monsters, and the cult sacrifices! The real danger in this one belongs in the people’s shelter, which is more frightening than any extraterrestrial monster could be. Darabont famously changed King’s ending to make it even more shocking.
7 Not Scary: Graveyard Shift (1990)
King’s short story about industrial workers fighting killer rats sounds entertaining for the silver screen, but it falls flat in actuality. Graveyard Shift just sort of dawdles— it’s a slow burn without many scares, and there isn’t enough drama to make watching the film worth it. Brad Dourif, who plays a fascinating exterminator (and Wormtongue in Lord of the Rings) steals every scene, but he’s not enough to save this one.
6 Scary: 1408 (2007)
2007 was a good year for scary Stephen King film adaptations. Besides The Mist, 1408 was released, which starred John Cusack as a man who winds up in a haunted hotel room (#1408) and starts losing his mind. Despite featuring a single location for the most part, Cusack is constantly bombarded by terrors, making the film gripping and heart-stopping through its entirety, which is just what a modern horror film should do.
5 Not Scary: Stand By Me (1986)
Stand By Me isn’t meant to be terrifying, and it’s still considered one of King’s best adaptations. Rob Reiner’s film deals with nostalgia as a group of hiking kids find a dead body and must learn to cope and transform into men. It’s a well-written saga of youth— mixing all the best and weirdest moments of adolescence, both comfortable and uncomfortable.
4 Scary: Christine (1983)
1983 was another amazing year for Stephen King film adaptations, with Cujo, The Dead Zone, and this masterpiece of horror films, Christine. This story about a possessed, killer Plymouth Fury is a highlight of the ‘80s, with excellent performances, scares all over the place, a great soundtrack, and a warped, scary tale. The scenes where Christine hunts down her enemies are filled with adrenaline-coursing terror.
3 Not Scary: The Green Mile (1999)
You can tell that Frank Darabont wanted to create another epic with The Green Mile, like he did in his first Stephen King adaptation, The Shawshank Redemption. But this one dragged on too long, had bloated production and overly sentimental characteristics, and even though it’s filled with mystery and intrigue, it just doesn’t quite make the grade. Also, it’s not scary whatsoever, but it’s not really meant to be.
2 Scary: Pet Sematary (2019)
We’ve put the 2019 re-adaptation of Pet Sematary on the list, rather than the 1989 version, just because it holds up as a scarier film— even though the 1989 is arguably better. King’s horrifying story about a family’s grief gone wrong is explosive, creepy, and shocking. The 2019 version makes the atmosphere even scarier, complementing the lighting, acting, and soundtrack. Though it’s a toss-up and personal preference for which version is actually the “better” film. Either way, they’re both frightening.
1 Not Scary: Maximum Overdrive (1986)
The only film that Stephen King directed himself, Maximum Overdrive tells the outrageous story of a group of strangers caught at a gas station, when all the machines come alive on Earth and start offing everyone. The characters are terrorized by vending machines and vehicles, but the special effects are laughable, making it hard to take seriously. The soundtrack by AC/DC is the definite highlight for this over-the-top mess of a film.
References: thewrap.com, usatoday.com, collider.com, looper.com