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The 13 most disturbing moments in Stephen King adaptations

Contributed by
Oct 11, 2018

Horror maestro Stephen King has given us decades of nightmare fuel throughout his long, storied career. Hollywood has been bringing many of his most frightening visions to life for almost as long.

While King's writing has been experiencing a bit of a film renaissance in the past few years, it's important to take in Hollywood's entire body of King work. The first King adaptation, 1976's Carrie, still haunts our dreams to this day.

Which other moments from these decades of King adaptations still keep us up at night? Here are the top 13...

Salem's Lot (1979): “Let me in!”

Thanks, Tobe Hooper, for one of the eeriest scenes that still gives us goosebumps: Amidst an unnatural fog, newly dead Danny (Brad Savage) appears at the second-story bedroom window of best friend Mark (Lance Kerwin) and taps at the glass.

“Open the window,” he beseeches. “Let me in. He commands it!” Luckily, Mark is a horror movie fan (the scene plays out in front of a poster of Lon Chaney Jr. in The Wolf Man), so he grabs a cross from a handy diorama and bans Danny from entering.

Misery (1990): “God, I love you.”

When Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) picks up that sledgehammer, we're pleading as furiously as bed-ridden Paul Sheldon (James Caan) for her not to swing it. As we know all too well, she does. Kudos to the Foley artist for the bone-crunching horror of it all.

Gerald's Game

Gerald's Game (2017): Jessie frees herself

A sex game goes horribly wrong is the set-up for one of the most most squirm-inducing “cover your eyes” moments in any King film. Jessie (Carla Gugino)'s husband handcuffs her to the bed in their remote lake house, then drops dead of a heart attack.

After days of trying to wriggle free while her husband's body rots, she comes to the terrible conclusion that there's only one way to free herself: She has to cut the skin off her own hand. It's even worse than the harrowing scene in 127 Hours because, well, there's no happy ending here. 

The Shining (1980): Room 237

At the supposedly empty Overlook Hotel, Danny (Danny Lloyd) emerges, catatonic, sucking his thumb with his sweater torn. Frantic Mom Wendy (Shelley Duvall) insists increasingly detached Dad Jack (Jack Nicholson) checks out the room Danny was just in.

In one of the most dreamlike scenes in Kubrick's film, Nicholson finds a young, beautiful naked woman in the bathroom. As they embrace, he catches sight of her in the mirror: She's turned into a cancer-ridden old hag who's laughing at him as he backs away in disgust. 

The Dead Zone (1983): “You knew!”

After awakening from a five-year coma, Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) can now see the past, present, or future of everyone whose hand he touches. When the police seek his help in a series of local murders, he grasps a dead girl's hand — and sees a vision of Frank Dodd (Nicholas Campbell), the police officer who killed her.

As the cops converge on Dodd's house, Dodd prepares his own grisly end with a pair of scissors. Johnny confronts Frank's mother and realizes, to his horror, that she knew about her son's murderous ways and did nothing to stop him. As he says, horrified, “You knew,” the mother grabs Frank's gun and shoots Johnny before being shot and killed by police. 

It (2017): “You're still my little girl”

Take your pick of the most disturbing scenes in this adaptation: Little Georgie's gruesome, arm-ripping death in the opening scene; the underground reveal of all the dead children who “float”; Henry Bowers's stabbing his abusive father; or the sink spewing blood in Bev (Sophie Lillis)'s bathroom.

But it's hard to top the incestuous implication when Bev's father pulls her close, buries his head in her hair and asks, “You're still my little girl, right?” Thankfully, the movie omitted the controversial scene in the book where Bev initiates sex with all the boys in the “Losers Club.” 

Pet Sematary (1989): Zelda

What's more disturbing than a cemetery that can bring pets — and people — back from the dead? Or an undead toddler wielding a razor blade? Mom's (Denise Crosby) childhood memories of invalid sister Zelda, who continues to haunt our dreams. The fact that the grotesquely gaunt Zelda is played by a man (Andrew Hubatsek) only adds to the unease.

Donna Trenton in Cujo

Cujo (1983): The bat

The entire film, in which Donna (Dee Wallace Stanton) and her son are trapped in a car by a rabid St. Bernard, is grueling. But when Donna finally reaches her breaking point and repeatedly bashes the blood-stained beast with a bat, we're right there, with her, batting away.

Of course, this being a horror film, Cujo isn't dead yet, and she's got to deliver one final shot. It's draining just to watch. 

1922 (2017): The rats

In this period film, a farmer (Thomas Jane) is paralyzed by guilt after killing his wife (Molly Parker) and throwing her down a well. The swarming rats culminate in a grotesque scene where one rat crawls backward out of the corpse's mouth.

Thanks, we're not hungry for the next month or so. 

The Mist (2007): That ending

King's short story about monsters from an alternate dimension is also a chilling allegory about the breakdown of society. Watching a store full of frightened people insist a soldier leave the safety of the building to face whatever is out there in the mist is terrifying, as is the self-proclaimed prophet Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden), who demanded it. But that bleak ending (which differs from King's more hopeful original story) really gets us.

Having escaped the chaos of the store, David (Thomas Jane) and his fellow survivors grimly accept the fact that they're doomed. David agrees to kill them all, including his own son, leaving no bullet for himself. Wrecked, he exits the car, expecting to be instantly killed. Instead, he's greeted by the military, who have closed the portal that let the monsters in. It's arguably the darkest ending in any King film. 

Carrie (1976): “Do it!”

Carrie (Sissy Spacek) unleashing holy hell at the prom is one of horror cinema's greatest sequences. And her deadly face-off with her religion-crazed mother (Piper Laurie) is the bloody coup de grace. (And that final jump scare really had the original audiences going.)

But, for my money, the most disturbing scene is when a drunken Billy (John Travolta), sledgehammer in hand, slaughters a pig for girlfriend Chris' (Nancy Allen) cruel prank. Four years before Jack Torrance thundered, “Little pigs, little pigs, let me come in,” pal Freddy (Michael Talbott) laughs, “Here piggy, I'm gonna bash your little heads in.”

When it comes time to do the deed, he chickens out, leaving Billy to “get 'er done” as the cold-blooded Chris screams “Do it! Do it” as the hammer swings. 

Apt Pupil (1998)

Twenty years later, Bryan Singer's film about a teenager, Todd (Brad Renfro), who befriends a former Nazi officer is only more disturbing. Renfro died of a drug overdose at age 25. Singer, who's been accused (but never convicted) of sexual assault, was sued by some of the underage male extras over a nude shower scene. The criminal and civil lawsuits were both dismissed and the scene was refilmed with adult actors.

Given all the real-life baggage, there's little appeal in watching a movie in which a teenager imagines his fellow students as Jewish prisoners in a gas chamber, an ex-Nazi tries (but fails) to gas a cat, and a homeless man is beaten to death. Especially with the last scene, where Todd blackmails a teacher who knows about his Nazi friend by threatening to expose him as a pedophile. 

Cat's Eye (1985): Diets never really work

While this three-segment film has a morbid sense of humor, it's hard not to be unsettled by the ending of the first story: After Dick Morrison (James Woods) seeks treatment from a company called Quitters to stop smoking, he realizes, to his horror, that he's entered into an unusually binding agreement.

With his family's safety on the line, he finally gives up smoking. Now when he decides to go on a diet, the consequences for slipping will also be severe, but not for him. In the final shot, he sees that his friend's wife, who recommended Quitters, is missing a finger. 

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