King-sized crap: the five worst horror flicks based on Stephen King stories

By Steve Newton

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of Stephen King. I’ve read a ton of his books, and some of the movies based on his works–like The Dead Zone, Misery, and Carrie–were outstanding.

But as the in-house horror reviewer for a Vancouver newspaper from 1988 to 2018, I’ve suffered through my fair share of awful films that were spawned by the Maine-man of horror. 

Here’s five of the worst: 

Lawnmower Man (1992), directed by Brett Leonard.

Boy, they sure did scrape the bottom of the Stephen King barrel for this movie, which takes its name—and little else—from a nine-page story that first appeared in the girlie mag Cavalier back in 1975. It was also included in the Night Shift collection, along with such fine stories (but terrible film fodder) as “Children of the Corn” and “Trucks” (which became King’s disastrous directorial debut, Maximum Overdrive).

But the blatant effort to cash in on King’s name—perhaps pushed by the Oscar-winning success of Misery—has never been so evident before, and at this rate we can surely expect the prime terror and gruesome shocks of Stephen King’s Grocery List.

King’s original story had nothing at all to do with The Lawnmower Man’s focus on virtual reality, the technology that allows the user to enter into a three-dimensional computer-generated environment.

As the film opens, obsessed scientist Dr. Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan from Remington Steele) is using the technology to increase the intelligence of laboratory chimpanzees, but when his prize test-monkey dies from the side-effect of uncontrollably violent behaviour, Angelo decides to try the process out on Jobe (Jeff Fahey), the mentally handicapped and physically abused man who mows his lawn.

In no time at all, Jobe’s intelligence surpasses that of the brilliant Dr. Angelo, and the side-effects of his drug-enhanced computer journeys allow him to read minds, affect the thoughts of others, and move things telepathically. Also, in a nod to another of King’s cinematic clunkers, Firestarter, a sinister group tries to exploit Angelo’s experiments for uses in war, rather than cures for diseases and disabilities.

As a result, the formerly gentle Jobe turns mean, slaughters all the characters who’ve wronged him, and has wild computer sex with luscious neighbour Marnie Burke (Jenny Wright, the seductive vampiress of Near Dark).

I won’t give away the ending of this mostly bogus cautionary tale—an Altered States for the Nintendo set—but let’s just say it has something to do with all the phones in the world ringing at the exact same moment.

And what could be more terrifying than that?

Pet Sematary Two (1992), directed by Mary Lambert.

In a recent edition of top horror magazine Fangoria, Pet Sematary author Stephen King explained how he felt about Pet Sematary Two, the sequel to the 1989 horror hit that grossed $84 million worldwide.

“I don’t approve of the movie and I didn’t want it made,” said King. “I hope the people who read Fangoria, the people who read my books, and anyone who likes my stuff will stay away from this picture.”

Take heed of Steve-O’s advice. Life’s too short to spend an hour-and-a-half of it watching hollow cinematic dreck like Pet Sematary Two. There are some neat gory bits, though.

Edward Furlong, the 14-year-old kid from Terminator 2, stars as a 14-year-old kid who moves with his veterinarian dad (Top Gun’s Anthony Edwards) to the small town of Ludlow, Maine, to escape the memories of his movie-star mom (Darlanne Fluegel) being electrocuted while shooting a horror movie. Just like his T2 character, Furlong’s Jeff Matthews is bitter and withdrawn, although sometimes it’s hard to tell, ’cause the kid can’t act worth beans.

As the new celebrity in town, Jeff draws the wrath of class bully Clyde (Big’s Jared Rushton), but also befriends chubby outcast Drew Gilbert (Jason McGuire), whose cruel stepdad is also the town sheriff. Clancy Brown portrays Sheriff Gus Gilbert, and his twisted performance—as a nasty live person and even nastier dead one—is by far the best thing about Pet Sematary Two.

The gleeful wickedness Brown projected so well as Christopher Lambert’s nemesis in Highlander is brought back full-bore in this one, and humans and animals alike fall prey to the bloody good fun the copper has with power drills and motorcycle wheels.

The titular burial ground comes into play after the sheriff shoots his stepson’s beautiful dog, Zowie, for causing a ruckus and interrupting his lovemaking. The two kids bury the dog at the local pet “sematary” and, just like the cat that came back in Pet Sematary, Zowie returns all ticked off and glowing-eyed, ready to kick ass.

Next thing you know, dead humans are being planted up at the magical old Indian burial ground, and they don’t come back happy, either.

The resultant orgy of violence is authentically depicted by some of Hollywood’s top make-up effects artists, but it’s unfortunate that little things like acting and story—not to mention any semblance of originality—take such a serious back seat to the gore.

Like Stephen King says, the people who read his books should stay away from Pet Sematary Two. And those who favour Umberto Eco might want to pass on it, too.

Sleepwalkers (1992), directed by Mick Garris.

There are some people out there who refuse to believe that this year’s big Oscar winner, The Silence of the Lambs, is a horror movie—even though it concerns a face-ripping cannibal with a taste for human liver who helps capture a sicko who skins women to make dresses. Well, I’ll tell ya one thing—it’s sure more of a horror movie than Sleepwalkers is. The latest Stephen King work to hit the screen is actually a comedy.

A bloody one, mind you, but still a comedy.

Written for the screen by King and directed by sequelizer Mick (Critters 2Psycho IV) Garris, Sleepwalkers involves the supposed mother and son team of Mary and Charles Brady (Alice Krige and Brian Krause, who look more like brother and sister), the last of a dying breed of Sleepwalkers, a shape-shifting cross between a werewolf and a vampire. These creatures—which are supposedly equal parts feline, reptilian, and human—live off the life force of virtuous young women, which means they suck a colourful ray of light out of their victims’ mouths to stay alive.

Always on the run for past indiscretions, the Bradys set up house in the idealized small town of Travis, Indiana—in the same cosy pad that TV’s Waltons occupied—and immediately set their ravenous sights on “nice girl” Tanya Robertson (Twin Peaks’ Mädchen Amick), who’s more than happy to visit the town’s graveyard-cum-make-out spot on her first date with the new kid/creature in town.

Amick manages to avoid becoming the Bradys’ brunch, though, thanks to a brave and vengeful cat called Clovis, which performs serious kitty-fu on Charles’s face, but not before he can push a pencil deep into the ear of Clovis’s policeman owner. You see, cats are the only beings that can see the Sleepwalkers for what they really are, and they don’t like what they see.

The feeling is mutual, so a whole army of cats—along with a good number of humans—get offed during Sleepwalkers. If this movie weren’t so gleefully over-the-top—not to mention dumb as a box of rocks—the SPCA would have good reason to put a contract out on old Steve-O.

Cameo appearances by horror icons Clive Barker, Tobe Hooper, and the King himself add little to this slapstick gorefest, which focuses on goofy bloodletting—including death by corn-on-the-cob—and tosses in a modicum of thrills and chuckles. The film-makers deserve credit for keeping the zipper of the rubber reptile suit hidden during the climactic Sleepie barbecue scene, though.

Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice (1993), directed by David Price.

The previous movie “based on a short story by Stephen King”, 1992’s The Lawnmower Man, bears so little resemblance to anything King wrote that the horror master belatedly sued to get his name separated from the film.

The latest flick spawned by one of King’s short works, Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice, is more fairly based on his 1977 “Children of the Corn” tale, but he should still sue its makers over this worthless piece of cinematic dreck.

Corn II is so despicable that it makes the lowly Children of the Corn flick from ’84 look good.

Now that’s a scary thought.

The movie opens with tabloid journalist John Garrett (Terence Knox of TV’s Tour of Duty) and his rebellious son Danny (Paul Scherrer) driving their van into sleepy Gatlin, Neb., where the bodies of 50 dead townspeople have just been discovered. It seems that the dim Garrett, a former Newsweek reporter (yeah, right), is covering the story for a rag called World Enquirer, but it’s the town’s young people who appear to be the culprits—not some evil alien offspring of an abducted Elvis—and Garrett finds that hard to believe.

Meanwhile, Danny—who resents his dad for abandoning his family when he was just a child—is semi-intrigued by the leader of the kid cult, Micah (Ryan Bollman), and his anti-grown-up preachings. Micah and his followers believe that it is only by wiping out the older folks in their midst that they can eradicate sin from the earth, so in the name of He Who Walks Behind the Rows (of corn), they give a church-goer a killer nosebleed, poke a doctor to death with his hypodermics, and crush an elderly lady with her own house!

While all this is going on, the newshound and his son are busy romancing the only two women in town who appear to be available. Dad hits the jackpot with the owner of the local bed-and-breakfast (Rosalind Allen), but while Danny is making out in a cornfield with teen bombshell Lacy (Days of Our Lives’ Christie Clark), a dismembered hand gets uncomfortably lodged beneath her and breaks up the party.

The two gals eventually get captured by the kids for the climactic sacrifice scene, but a big corn-husking machine saves the day and makes red soup out of the loud-mouthed Micah brat.

The director of Children of the Corn II is David Price, who made his feature debut last year with the direct-to-video horror sequel Son of Darkness: To Die For II. But Price is not alone in his ascension to the title of He Who Makes the Crappy Movie, because he got a shipload of help from this flick’s lame-brained writers and emotionless actors.

Save your money and wait till Corn II comes out on videotape.

Then don’t rent it.

The Mangler (1995), directed by Tobe Hooper.

The fear of being mangled by machinery is a powerful one, indeed. Of course, not everyone suffers the daily risk of being sucked into a threshing machine, but the potential for physical harm is always there.

Say the electric lawn mower gets clogged with a clump of grass and you pluck it away without actually unplugging the cord: if the mower’s on/off switch happens to slip at that exact moment, you can cancel those guitar lessons.

Then there’s that trusty old standby, the car crash. Even if you’ve managed to avoid accidents all your life, one shrill squeal of brakes can be enough to send creepy shudders racing up your back.

Stephen King knows how machines scare people, as he first proved back in 1973 with the short story “Trucks”. A precursor to the automotive carnage of his famous novel Christine, the 16-page “Trucks” was a sharp little switchblade of a story about a group of people trapped in a truck stop by a horde of large, driverless, malevolent vehicles.

Unfortunately for King, he made his disastrous directorial debut with a feature film based on that tidy tale, and Maximum Overdrive has been widely acknowledged as the worst King-derived entry ever. Now it’s getting some competition with The Mangler, another shockingly awful adaptation from King’s Night Shift collection.

Directed by Tobe Hooper—who made The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist and oughta know better—this 90-minute embarrassment concerns the gory exploits of a monstrous speed ironer/folder used at a run-down small-town laundry lorded over by crippled/demented/just-plain-nasty owner William Gartley (Freddy Krueger actor Robert Englund).

When 16-year-old worker Sherry Oulette (30ish-looking Vanessa Pike) cuts her hand and drips virgin blood on the machine, it quickly acquires a taste for the red stuff and starts turning the cast into Beef-o-ghetti.

Brain-dead local cop John Hunton—Ted Levine, who was effective as the transsexual serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs but here comes off as a poor man’s James Remar—teams up with his psychic brother-in-law (the bland Daniel Matmor) to “exorcise” the demonic equipment, leading to one of the silliest, most laughable climaxes in horror history.

I’ve been more frightened by the prospect of folding my own laundry than by anything The Mangler offers up.

Go here to read more than 350 of my reviews of horror movies released theatrically in North America between 1988 and 2018.

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