Movies & TV / Columns

A Bloody Good Time: Ranking Stephen King’s TV Movies, Part 1 (#22-12)

August 31, 2017 | Posted by Joseph Lee
Carrie Stephen King

A Bloody Good TIme Logo courtesy of Benjamin J. Colón (Soul Exodus)

Well, IT is almost upon us, folks. The new adaptation of Stephen King’s 1136-page novel arrives on September 8 and I am incredibly excited. The footage I’ve seen, the positive word-of-mouth and the little details I’ve noticed has me on the edge of my seat waiting for this. It looks like the novel will finally be given justice. The great stuff will be adapted properly and hopefully the not-so-great stuff will be left in the novel where it belongs.

Of course if you haven’t ever seen the original IT, you may be surprised to find out it was actually a two-night miniseries event on ABC back on November 18 and November 20. I vaguely remember being shooed out of a room while Part 2 was on and later asking how it ended because the clown scared me. Of course I was four at the time and even then I thought “throwing a rock at a giant spider” sounded stupid. That’s how my aunt described it to me, for the record.

Anyway, the miniseries almost seems like a lost art. I know it still happens, but it’s usually reserved for cable and it is several one-hour episodes over a month or so. I guess the way it was done back then is what I mean. Two or three feature-length parts over a few days, hyped up as a big event. It could be argued that Stephen King played a big role in making that kind of event series popular, as it was movies like IT that brought in big ratings for whatever network aired them, with a good chunk on ABC.

So over the next two weeks, I’m going to rank all 22 Stephen King miniseries and TV movies. Being made for television means they have to rely on smaller budget, less notable actors and if it’s expanded, a longer running time. So it’s a different medium than film and it meant for more memorable (even if that always wasn’t a good thing) content. I’m not counting Kingdom Hospital, The Dead Zone, Under the Dome or the new version of The Mist. Those are all actual TV shows.

#22: Desperation (2005)

Let me just say up front that I love the Desperation book. It’s one of my favorite Stephen King novels and I think it’s vastly underrated. That’s probably why I was so disappointed when I finally saw the film (originally intended to be a miniseries, but ABC dumped it all into one night) after it hit DVD. The saddest thing about this film, I think, is how much wasted potential it is. Not only is it a great book, but it has a tremendous psychotic performance from Ron Perlman in the first thirty minutes. It has a solid cast with guys like Steven Weber, Matt Frewer and Henry Thomas. It has a script by Stephen King himself, who had success adapting his own work in Pet Sematary and The Stand (spoiler alert, that shows up high on the list).

The entire thing seems like a joke. Maybe it’s that made-for-TV feel, maybe it’s Mick Garris’ direction, I don’t know. But the performances are over-the-top, the special effects are mostly laughable and it feels like a parody. And yes, since the lines of dialogue are so cheesy, you have to criticize King’s script. Maybe things that work well in the book don’t necessarily work well on screen. Could be why King left out all references to “Oz The Gweat and Tewwible” in his Pet Semetary script. It’d come across as cheesy and childish during moments of tension. Desperation is so vastly disappointing that it’s not only the worst King miniseries, but it’s definitely among the worst of his adaptations.

#21: The Langoliers (1995)

I think the failure of The Langoliers is simply because it was too high-concept for a made-for-TV miniseries in the 90s. Well it fails for a lot of other reasons, but it’s possible that a remake with a higher budget could do the story justice. This one aired on ABC over two nights and was directed by Tom Holland. He directed two genre classics in Child’s Play and Fright Night, so it was easy to see why he got the job. Of course, maybe it was a mistake to do so, as the result is well, The Langoliers.

Once again, it’s not all bad. David Morse and Kate Maberly are great and Mark Lindsay Chapman is fine if a little wooden as Nick. The story, while eventually becoming nonsensical, starts out mysterious and interesting. There are two major problems that bring everything down, and if you’ve seen it then you know what I’m talking about. First is Bronson Pinchot as Craig Toomy. He’s hilarious, sure, but he’s meant to be intimidating. He’s the secondary villain, but he chews the scenery like it’s made of chocolate and it removes any level of suspense Holland may have actually built. Of course, the actual reveal of the Langoliers, giant circular monsters that literally eat the past, is a complete and total trainwreck because of the limitations of CGI effects. While I’m not 100% sure the monsters would work in any context but fiction, I know they sure as hell don’t work they way they’re portrayed in this. If I had been watching live, I’d have turned it off after that, not caring how it ended.

#20: Rose Red (2002)

This one aired over three nights on, you guessed it, ABC. This is the first miniseries on the list that was created for television and not an adaptation of another work. That means any flaws are totally Stephen King’s fault and we should all point and laugh. This one is about a group of psychics who investigate the titular house, which was “born bad.” It has its bright spots but overall Rose Red is an overly long slog. It’s a story that could have been told in two nights (or, let’s be honest, a two-hour movie) but is stretched out to three. That’s its first problem.

The second problem is that it’s not really scary. Of course that’s a big problem for, well, all of the TV movies, actually. Even the good ones. But it’s predictable, slow and cliched, so it’s really hard to stay invested in a story that features some decent performances and solid production design. When’s the last time I ever mentioned production design in a horror film? I’m searching for things to praise here. And the script feels more like someone trying to imitate King than something written by King himself. It’s just a really long mess and not something I plan to revisit any time soon.

#19: The Tommyknockers (1993)

Oh boy. The Tommyknockers. The book itself is already on bad footing as King wrote it during the height of his drug addiction and has called it awful. Granted, he wrote Cujo on drugs and that turned out well, but The Tommyknockers didn’t. The minseries aired over two nights on ABC. Maybe it’s just ABC that’s bad for King adaptations. Maybe as we move up in this list we’ll see they aired elsewhere.

This movie is about…a town in Maine that gets invaded, sort of, by aliens. It’s like King’s take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers or something similar. Everyone gets infected by this alien decive and develop a hive mind as they try to free machinery from the ground and invent really weird things. Oh and they all lose their minds, which leads to some wacky performances. The Tommyknockers is the last of the truly awful King made-for-TV projects, as they start to get better from here. But it’s another slow, dull sit with an underwhelming finale and poor special effects. At least the book had a reference to Pennywise.

#18: Salem’s Lot (2004)

This was the second of two adaptations (three if you count A Return to Salem’s Lot) of King’s second novel, which is still regarded as one of his scariest. This miniseries aired on TNT over two nights, finally getting us away from the American Broadcasting Company. Shame on you, ABC. Anyway, this one begins a stretch of TV projects that aren’t necessarily bad, but mostly forgettable. I know that’s not what you want to hear when reading a list like this, but it could be worse. Bronson Pinchot could be in it.

Instead we get a who’s who in the cast, including Rob Lowe, Rutger Hauer, Donald Sutherland, Andre Braugher and James Cromwell. That’s a fine selection of actors doing their best to elevate the material (not that the material was bad). The script takes some liberties with the source material, particularly with Father Callahan, but as a vampire movie I’ve seen a lot worse. The performances are good, the vampire action is solid. It’s just…fine. It’s a fine movie about bloodsuckers. Check it out if you haven’t seen it, but don’t expect a lot.

#17: Bag of Bones (2011)

Remember when A&E was a network devoted to the history of the arts and multiple episodes of Biography? Well they run scripted programming now that specialty channels are a thing of the past and everything’s uniformed. But that’s a rant for another day. I bring this up because the miniseries based on Bag of Bones aired on A&E over two nights in 2011. I remember seeing the ads for it in magazines and finally watching it. This is one of the adaptations on the list where I’ve yet to read the book. Unfortunately I’m in no rush after watching this.

Once again it’s a case where there’s nothing really poorly made about it, even with Mick Garris directing. Pierce Brosnan does a solid job as the lead and Annabeth Gish is very likeable as his deceased wife, whenever she shows up. It’s mostly just dull with the occasionally cheesy spot. It’s also overly serious, which is something that even the worst King films usually avoid. I did enjoy the easter egg references to other King stories, however. Ralph Roberts from Insomnia shows up, making this the first, and likely only, time he’s appeared in a film.

#16: The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer

Sure, I didn’t like Rose Red, but it was still a massive hit when it aired. It brought in 18.5 million viewers over three nights and had an 8.5 rating, which are numbers networks would kill for these days. It got a tie-in book the year before it was released called The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer, which got its own adaptation as a prequel to Rose Red in 2003. Of course it aired on ABC, as the original did. Stephen King barely had anything to do with this one, outside of the characters.

So why is it better? Well for one, it’s a lot shorter. You’d think focusing on the construction of a soon-to-be-evil house wouldn’t be as interesting as psychics encountering ghosts, but that’s the case here. The change of time periods helps, the acting is decent and the silly bits can be ignored with the occasional creepy moment or two. It’s not great or anything, but it does a better job at telling Rose Red than Rose Red did from what I remember.

#15: Children of the Corn (2009)

Now I’ll give you that the original Children of the Corn isn’t very good and the sequels are even worse. But did it really need another adaptation? Apparently someone at Syfy thought so because we got the remake in 2009, although thankfully no one tried to turn a short story into a miniseries. That would just be silly. In a bit of trivia, this one features Kandyse McClure, who also appeared in the made-for-TV Carrie remake. More on that a little later.

This has several unique changes from the original film, making it a worthwhile watch. One of these includes the fact that it’s far more faithful to the Stephen King short story, especially when it pretains to the ending. The performances aren’t great on the part of the kids, and it’s clearly low budget, but it works well enough for what it is. It may even be the best Children of the Corn-related movie, although that’s a low bar to clear.

#14: Firestarter: Rekindled

We’ve got another adaptation from Syfy, although this is from back when it was just the Sci-Fi Channel. It aired over two-nights in March 2002. I wouldn’t blame you if you weren’t even aware this made-for-Tv sequel exists, but here it is. This time it follows an adult Charlie McGee, played by someone other than the likely too-expesive Drew Barrymore, as she is on the run from Malcolm McDowell’s portrayal of John Rainbird. I’m not sure how you go from George C. Scott to Malcolm McDowell, but hey, I’m always on board for seeing him in movies.

This is another really long sit and it feels like an attempt at a possible TV series like the Carrie remake and The Dead Zone were. I’m not saying it was, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the intent. Why else spring a Firestarter sequel on everyone eighteen years after the fact? Anyway, outside of this being really long and having cheesy special effects, it’s got a solid script and some decent performances. A lot of fans like to pretend it doesn’t exist, but if you can separate it from its source material you’ll enjoy it well enough.

#13: Carrie (2002)

Carrie, I guess, is one of those universal horror tales that will inevitable get updated every fifteen years or so for a new generation. It’s similar to King Kong or Invasion of the Body Snatchers (which I think should be updated every other decade) in that respect. This time we had a made-for-TV effort that aired on NBC in 2002. As I mentioned above, this was actually meant to lead into a TV series, evidenced by the fact that Carrie lives at the end and goes to look for people like her. I wonder what a TV show about Carrie would be like. Would she encounter a psychic every week? Would she eventually run into a shadowy government agency trying to track her down? Basically The Pretender with a mass-murdering psychic?

Carrie‘s a story that has resulted in one great adaptation and three okay-to-great adaptations, depending on your viewpoint. The 2002 version is on the “okay” side of the spectrum and arguably the worst part is Angela Bettis (who I normally enjoy) as Carrie White. She’s miscast in a role that seems like one she could easily nail. The special effects don’t help, but the rest is a solid re-telling of Stephen King’s story. I still stand by my previous claims that The Rage is the best remake of Carrie so far, but maybe I’ll change my mind if that extended director’s cut of the 2013 version ever gets released.

#12: Trucks (1998)

I guess someone thought they could do Stephen King better than Stephen King. I’m sure you’ve all heard of Maximum Overdrive, King’s self-directed 1986 movie that he did while “coked out of his mind.” It’s a really, really dumb movie that’s still somehow fun to watch and has a great soundtrack from AC/DC. Only a decade later, someone at the Sci-Fi channel thought they could do better and as a result we get Trucks.

Honestly, it’s not too bad, I guess. The story was never great to begin with and if you watch it on DVD, you get all the gore intact. Can’t imagine what it was like for people who watched this without bloodshed in 1998 though. It’s incredibly low-budget and the script is awful, which means all horror fans really have to rely on is the gore. Which makes it enjoyable from a special effects standpoint but otherwise, you’re going to have more fun at Maximum Overdrive.

Ending Notes:

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