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Debate Club: The 5 best Stephen King films of the 21st century

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Oct 16, 2019

Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.

Stephen King's works have inspired so many movies they're nearly a genre unto themselves. And look at some of the A-list directors who have helmed King stories: Stanley Kubrick, Brian De Palma, David Cronenberg, Rob Reiner, Frank Darabont, George A. Romero, Tobe Hooper, Lawrence Kasdan, John Carpenter ... 

But perhaps what's most fascinating is how many of his old books are being remade into movies today. What was once current becomes nostalgia.

Today, we're looking at the best Stephen King movies made this century. (By the way, in a month or so, this list may end up needing to be updated...)

Pet Sematary (2019)

Saying that this remake is better than the dopey original film isn’t high praise, but the new Pet Sematary benefits from a terrific cast, including its two leads, Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz. They play parents who lose a cat and then a child, and when they discover an old cemetery down the road that may bring back the dead… well, bad things definitely happen.

For this to work, you have to understand the desperation of the parents, and they both get that across — particularly Clarke, who is damaged and dangerous throughout. This isn't classic King… but it does the job.

1408 (2007)

Originally written as a short story to be appended to his seminal instructional book On Writing, 1408 ended up in an audiobook collection, of all places. But that makes a certain amount of sense for a story about a writer who pens books about haunted hotel rooms but doesn't believe any of it is true... until he suddenly, violently is forced to admit he’s wrong.

John Cusack, who has a tendency to sleepwalk through roles of late, is quite compelling as the writer slowly going mad in a room that is pure evil. And credit where it's due: This doesn't cheat on the ending.

The Mist (2007)

Stephen King doesn't just write horror, of course: filmmaker Frank Darabont rose to prominence by focusing on the author’s more sentimental character pieces, earning Oscar nominations for The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. But Darabont went dark with The Mist, a post-apocalyptic tale of a community of survivors hiding out in a grocery store while an evil mist kills everyone outside.

Written during the Cold War — the story is a clear metaphor for nuclear war — King's novella becomes a supremely unsettling monster movie. After watching Darabont speak to our better natures in a couple acclaimed, heartwarming films, it was very fun to see him get this nasty and twisted.

It: Chapter One (2017)

The second installment, It: Chapter Two, got more mixed reviews and hasn’t done as well at the box office, but the first chapter is a real gem of sustained, emotionally fraught horror.

King's book about the most terrifying clown ever — sorry, Joker — was originally adapted into a 1990 ABC miniseries, but It: Chapter One has its own sense of menace and pathos. Mama director Andy Muschietti takes us back to the 1980s, where some kids living in a small Maine town discover that a malevolent force is preying on their buried traumas.

And with all due respect to Tim Curry, the Pennywise of the old miniseries, Bill Skarsgård gives us a clown of nightmares. Those eyes. That laugh. That unnerving stillness. Just when we thought it was finally OK to stop being scared of random red balloons...

Gerald's Game (2017)

Mike Flanagan has become one of the hottest horror directors of recent years thanks to Oculus and The Haunting of Hill House. He received major kudos as well for his adaptation of this 1992 King novel, in which a wife (Carla Gugino) must fight to get free after she’s handcuffed to the bed by her husband (Bruce Greenwood), who then drops dead of a heart attack.

King has had a penchant for fascinating female characters, and Gugino helps bring Jessie to life: She deserves mention alongside Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, and Oscar-winner Kathy Bates in the annals of superb King performers.

And Flanagan isn't done working with Mr. King yet: next month, his highly-anticipated take on Doctor Sleep will be coming to the big screen.

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

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