Thursday, June 13, 2024

A Retrospective Of Stephen King’s Films From The 1980s

By Cody Dericks 

“Prolific” doesn’t even accurately describe just how bountiful Stephen King’s artistic output is. Since his first published novel, “Carrie,” was released in 1974, there has never been a time when a King story couldn’t be found on bookstores’ “new releases” shelf. The authorial juggernaut has published 64 novels and hundreds of short stories, but he’s not just a legendary name among literary circles. Forty-eight film adaptations of his works have been made, including numerous television movies, miniseries, spin-offs, and sequels. But one era stands as specifically crucial to the horror mastermind’s place in cinematic history: the 1980s. After the 1976 release of “Carrie” marked the film debut for King’s stories, the ’80s proved to be a massive decade for King movies, with 15 released in total. While most of these films are obviously of the horror genre, they’re all quite different in terms of content, tone, and perhaps most notably, quality. The ’80s was a time when Stephen King went from a well-known personality to a branded superstar whose very name guaranteed attention and interest from filmgoers. With the upcoming release of “Firestarter,” a remake of the 1984 King adaptation of the same name, now is the perfect time to explore this pivotal decade of films written by or adapted from the works of Stephen King.

The first King film released in the 1980s would go from being scorned upon its release to eventually ascending the ranks of legendary horror classics. “The Shining” was brought to the screen in 1980 by none other than Stanley Kubrick, inarguably one of the greatest, most influential directors of the 20th century. The film is led by Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, who both turn in some of the best performances of their illustrious careers. Nicholson is simply terrifying, weaponizing his naturally intimidating features to craft himself into the physical embodiment of menace. He’s even able to turn a talk show catchphrase (“Here’s Johnny!”) into a threatening exclamation. And Duvall gives one of the greatest portrayals of a frightened individual in the history of film. Part of this may be because Kubrick tormented her on set, blurring the line between performance and real-life experience, but her talent can’t be underestimated when it comes to assessing her work in the film. She’s a quivering, exposed nerve of a woman, consistently finding new levels and depths to her character’s wailing fear. If Nicholson’s Jack is a bloodthirsty predator, Duvall’s Wendy is the doomed prey. Their dual performances add humanity to the biodome of terror that Kubrick constructs around his characters. The film becomes a machine in his exacting hands, perfectly calibrated to horrify audiences at every turn. The sets, supporting performances, and most impressively, the score and sound design all do their part to sell the hellish environment that audiences are forced to inhabit for two and a half hours.

Upon its release, “The Shining” made a respectable, but not superlative, profit at the box office, but critical reviews were decidedly mixed. Famously, King himself is not a fan of the film, believing it to be a poor adaptation of his source material. While the film differs greatly from the book, the general tone and many central ideas remain intact, albeit presented differently. Over time, the film has gained a greater appreciation among both general audiences and film experts. It is now considered not only one of the greatest horror films ever made but perhaps the scariest.

In 1982, King worked on an unusual project. “Creepshow” is one of the earliest examples of the now-ubiquitous horror anthology film. Ostensibly an ode to horror comics of King’s youth, such as “Tales from the Crypt,” King wrote the screenplay for this piecemeal movie. Comprised of what are essentially five short films plus a framing prologue and epilogue, three of the chapters were written specifically for the film, while the other two were adapted from previously published King short stories. The film’s tone is a departure from the King adaptations that came earlier, with most of the wicked tales aiming to make audiences laugh as well as scream. It’s practically impossible to watch the five chapters and not compare them. The scariest one is titled “Something to Tide You Over,” featuring Leslie Nielsen as a masochistic millionaire who enacts revenge on his unfaithful wife (Gaylen Ross) and her lover (Ted Danson) by forcing them to bury themselves neck-deep at a beach. As the tide rolls in, the film shows them being slammed by waves with increasing violence in a way that’s genuinely upsetting. The final segment, “They’re Creeping Up On You,” is sure to make those with a fear of insects squeamish as it tells the story of, again, a cruel rich man (E.G. Marshall) whose hermetically-sealed apartment is invaded by an ungodly amount of cockroaches. The other three stories work better as perverse horror-comedy segments rather than being outright scary, but overall “Creepshow” is a fun, silly time.

The following year was huge for King, as it saw the release of three films based on his novels. “Cujo” is one of those films whose title has evolved to become shorthand for a real-life situation. (Since its release, countless numbers of aggressive dogs have been derisively called by the same name as the film’s furry antagonist.) It’s also one of King’s more grounded stories, with no supernatural or paranormal elements to be found. It’s simply the story of one rabid dog tormenting a small group of people. Like many of King’s stories, it serves as a subversion of classic Americana – in this case, it makes a monster out of man’s best friend and, as shown explicitly in the film, it distorts the idea that every little boy is the happiest when playing with their dog. Smartly, nearly half of the film’s runtime takes place in one location, as a mother (an exceptional Dee Wallace) and her young son (Danny Pintauro) find themselves trapped in their broken-down car as Cujo terrorizes them from outside. Director Lewis Teague employs efficient, simple filmmaking techniques to make the audience feel the claustrophobic confines of the two sympathetic characters. 

That same year, one of the more widely acclaimed King adaptations was released: “The Dead Zone,” directed by legendary filmmaker David Cronenberg. Much like “The Shining,” this is a mature adult drama with a supernatural plot. However, what pushes the film over the edge into masterpiece territory is its mournful, grieving tone. There’s very little light to be found at the end of this proverbial tunnel as the tormented main character, Johnny (Christopher Walken), sadly shuffles towards his own inevitable expiration. After barely surviving a car accident, Johnny wakes up from a coma that’s lasted five years. This mini death has also given him the ability to see peoples’ futures just by touching them. Cloaked in a jet-black coat like the Grim Reaper himself, he spends most of the film avoiding the twisted gift that’s been bestowed upon him before finally facing the truth and using it for the greater good, even if it means his end. On the whole, the film feels like waiting in a funeral waiting room for nearly two hours, as the audience is forced to confront their own mortality just as Johnny is. Death may be inevitable, but as this film shows, what matters more than when it will happen is what one does with the time they have.

The final film of the 1983 trio is “Christine,” directed by horror master John Carpenter. Like “Cujo,” this film turns a classic bit of American iconography on its head (or rather, its hood): the car and how often it’s seen as a symbol of burgeoning adulthood and masculinity for teenage boys. With Carpenter behind the wheel, the film is a wild ride, with many screeching scenes of car carnage and, even more impressively, mind-blowing sequences where the titular car puts herself back together. It’s a ferocious deconstruction of the weight and importance we put on material goods and how often they’re imbued with an almost mystical quality by their owners.

Stephen King

“Children of the Corn” has the distinction of being the first film to put Stephen King’s name above the title – an indication that the author had become a marketable commodity himself upon the film’s release in March of 1984. Unfortunately, the film itself is hardly worthy of his moniker. A small-scale story about a demonic cult of children who worship and kill in the name of a stalk-based deity referred to as “He Who Walks Behind the Rows.” While the kids are creepy, the film itself is a mostly dull, unscary affair that follows two adults (Linda Hamilton and Peter Horton) who stumble upon the farm setting. King himself wrote the first draft of the screenplay, which was discarded for a script by George Goldsmith. Consequently, it lacks the brains and strong themes typically found in a King story.

That same year, Mark L. Lester’s film “Firestarter” was released. Based on King’s novel, this is less of a scary story and more of a supernatural, science fiction tale. In fact, the pyrotechnic little girl at the film’s center (a young Drew Barrymore, two years removed from her breakout performance in “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”) resembles a superhero more than a horror character. Her telepathic father suppresses her flame-conjuring abilities before she finally unleashes them with no inhibition in the film’s white-hot finale. Considering the subject matter, it’s a thrilling conclusion to a surprisingly muted movie. But this restraint makes the final sequence even more surprisingly exciting. Plus, the fire effects are truly impressive, given the era in which the film was released. While it may not be as well-known as some of the more classic King films, “Firestarter” is nevertheless an enjoyable story with a genuinely touching father-daughter dynamic at its core.

The second anthology horror film of King’s ’80s run (and not the last) was released in 1985. “Cat’s Eye” features three disparate stories linked together only because they all feature the same cat at some point. The first two chapters, which are adapted from King’s short stories, are distinctly plausible, if not heightened yarns, while the last one (also featuring Drew Barrymore) is wildly supernatural and written directly for the screen by King. Although there are occasional thrilling moments, the trio of tales never quite mesh together satisfyingly or logically. They also get worse as they go along, with the first segment starring James Woods standing out as the most well-constructed of the bunch. Notably, it shows that King is aware of himself as an icon of horror, as the film features explicit references to “Cujo,” “Christine,” and “The Dead Zone.” With these Easter eggs, he’s clearly playing to his fans.

“Silver Bullet” also came to cinemas in 1985. Based on King’s novella entitled “Cycle of the Werewolf,” it features many typical touchstones of his writing. Specifically, it’s a scary story about children in an idyllic American small town trying to defeat a horrifying monster to which the adults in their lives are oblivious. In this case, the creature is a werewolf responsible for a series of vicious killings. The werewolf attacks are undoubtedly the most noteworthy part of this otherwise middle-of-the-road fright flick. They’re brutal and uninhibited, showing the full power of the monster’s murderous abilities. Overall, it’s an enjoyable and supremely watchable, if unremarkable, 80s B-movie. 

Stephen King’s directorial debut – and so far, his only time behind the camera – was released in 1986. “Maximum Overdrive” also features a screenplay by King, inspired by his short story “Trucks.” King’s vision as a director is clear from the first few minutes. When he’s entirely in charge of bringing his own story to the screen, the violence and depravity that occur practically non-stop in the film’s perverse world take on a much more gleeful tone than they might have if someone else was commandeering the camera. It’s a vulgar, nasty movie filled with entirely unlikeable characters. The apocalyptic story concerns an unlikely band of degenerates holed up in a gas station as they hide from a roving gang of murderous trucks. A passing comet has managed to give sentience to all of Earth’s machines, with vengeful 18-wheelers wreaking the most havoc. But besides some undeniably fun visuals of trucks operating with no apparent driver, “Maximum Overdrive” is an unpleasant, trashy film that seems to revel in making the audience as revolted as possible.

The other 1986 King adaptation is wildly different in both quality and content. “Stand by Me” is the ambling, wistful story of four boys who go on an adventure to find the dead body of a missing kid. It’s quite a departure for a King film in that there are no horror, supernatural, or science fiction elements. The story is a gentle yet truthful tale of adolescence and the difficulties that the expectations of looming adulthood can bring, even to children who’ve barely reached double-digit ages. In fact, much of it resembles King’s “IT,” except instead of a demonic clown making the children’s lives hell, real-life terrors haunt them instead. Bullies, abusive parents, and the existential reality of life follow the boys around like a curse that audiences can relate to. This film also paved the way for film adaptations of King’s non-horror writing, including later successes like “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile.” It’s not a stretch to imagine that without director Rob Reiner’s steady direction of “Stand by Me,” which takes its subject matter seriously, those future cinematic accomplishments may not have been made at all.

“Creepshow 2” continued the anthological horror tradition of its predecessor when it was released in 1987. Although King didn’t write the screenplay this time around, the film is based upon his writings and short stories. It’s a much more pared downtime at the movies than the singular options film, comprising of only three chapters surrounded by animated interstitial segments. However, unlike the first film, these stories aren’t quite so playful and are much more mean-spirited and, therefore, scarier. There’s less zany, oddball energy to these mini tales of terror. Still, that element of fun is sourly missed from this sequel, although it does have its own place in King’s canon as a digestible little movie with spooky vibes.

Arnold Schwarzenegger may seem like an unlikely star to lead a Stephen King film, but 1987’s “The Running Man” proved to be the perfect vehicle for the action star at that point in his career. Based on King’s novel, which was published under his pen name Richard Bachman, the film is a sci-fi action-adventure set in the far-off, dystopian future of 2017. Schwarzenegger plays a policeman who is framed for the massacre of a peaceful riot and, after being captured, is forced to compete in the titular game show. In the world of the film, The Running Man pits supposed criminals against armed mercenaries as they hide from and attack each other on a war-torn playing field. The Austrian bodybuilder is in peak form, both physically and as a movie star, delivering cheesy one-liners with charm aplenty. And while it’s not a horror story, it still paints a dire picture of the alarming possible endpoint of capitalism and materialism. It even predicts some of the more unsavory elements of the 21st century that have become not only accepted but somehow defended by many; deepfakes, prison slave labor, and the way that American politics have become a glorified game show are all presented in a chillingly prescient way.

It’s not uncommon for TV shows to leap to the silver screen, but “A Return to Salem’s Lot” has the unusual distinction of being a theatrically released sequel to the 1979 miniseries adaptation of King’s novel “Salem’s Lot.” It’s not a direct adaptation of the original story, and with a limited release and disappointing critical notices, its legacy is mainly limited to the curiosity of its small-screen-to-big-screen journey.

The final King adaptation to be released in the 1980s was “Pet Sematary,” based on what many consider to be his scariest novel. Directed by Mary Lambert and with a screenplay by King himself, the film tells the story of the Creed family who moves into a new home, only to discover that a mysterious pet cemetery on their property holds the ability to bring back to life anything that’s buried within its grounds. However, these reanimating powers turn out to bring not a welcome second chance for departed creatures but rather a horrifying half-life that’s worse than death. It’s one of the grimmest King films, utterly unafraid to off pets and children in the name of telling its terrifying story of grief and the nature of death. In fact, the film goes to show that imagining and wishing for alternate realities after the loss of a loved one is a nigh-hubristic way of ignoring the life we’ve been given. And it’s scary! Lambert brings several frightening images to visceral life with style, showing both an appreciation for the material and a knowledge of horror’s ability to reflect the real world in a horrifying, twisted reflection.

Most authors are lucky if one of their pieces successfully makes the transition to movie theaters. Stephen King has been blessed with a bounty of cinematic adaptations of his writing, some of which have surpassed the legacy of the original works. And the 1980s have proven to be one of the most significant periods when it comes to successful King adaptations that effectively terrify and emotionally impact their audiences.

​Are you excited to see the remake of “Firestarter?” Which Stephen King film adaptation from the 1980s is your favorite? What’s your favorite Stephen King film adaptation overall? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.

You can follow Cody and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @codymonster91

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Cody Dericks
Cody Dericks
Actor, awards & musical theatre buff. Co-host of the horror film podcast Halloweeners.

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