Originally published in the Stephen King special issue of Birth.Movies.Death magazine in 2017.
Stephen King’s novels have been adapted into feature films so many times, he’s his own section in what video stores remain in this world. But King’s literary output isn’t limited to his fifty-plus novels: it also includes nearly two hundred works of short fiction, many collected in anthologies of short stories or novellas. And though several have themselves been adapted into features, many King stories have made their way into film anthologies of their own.
The anthology format dates back to cinema’s earliest days. In its most basic form, it compiles a series of thematically similar shorts into a feature-length package, often linked together with bookend or “wraparound” scenes that turn the film into a cohesive whole. Anthologies exist in almost all genres, from historical drama (Intolerance) to science fiction (The Illustrated Man, Heavy Metal), but they most frequently tell tales of horror.
It’s no surprise horror anthologies are so prevalent. Whether short stories, short films, or campfire stories, bite-sized horror tales are uniquely appealing. That extends to anthology cinema: a machine-gun blast of shorts can get in, give a couple good scares or chills, and get out again. Most horror anthologies collect work from multiple creators, tell wholly original stories, or adapt horror comics like EC’s Tales From The Crypt. But Stephen King is unique among horror authors in that multiple anthology films have been produced exclusively from his stories.
Again, it’s no surprise that King has a little monopoly on anthology movies. His fingerprints are all over the genre; he’s simply written so many well-regarded short works that, statistically, it was bound to happen. Though his novels sometimes sprawl to untenable lengths, short stories represent King at his most focused, terrifying, and even poignant: he’s an expert in pushing concepts just as far as they need to go, then punching to credits (so to speak). As it turns out, that plays just as well on screen as on the page.
The most beloved King anthology, Creepshow (1982), affectionately follows the EC Comics template to the letter. The film’s bookend story features a kid eagerly leafing through horror comics, and its main stories reflect that flavour of ghoulish fun. Only two are based on previously-published work, but all five are pure King – at least, as directed by George A. Romero. “Father’s Day” sees a despicable, murdered patriarch return from the dead to claim the Father’s Day cake he never got, killing his descendants in the process. “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” features King himself as a hillbilly in a goopy, backwoods take on Little Shop of Horrors. “Something To Tide You Over” takes a more psychological tone, with Leslie Nielsen burying his wife and her lover between the tide marks on a beach, before becoming another living-dead revenge tale. In “The Crate,” a college professor accidentally unleashes a deadly monster, which subsequently gets used as the vehicle for a spiteful murder. And “They’re Creeping Up On You” has a germophobe (12 Angry Men’s E.G. Marshall) besieged by cockroaches in his once hermetically-sealed apartment. Every story builds to a “happily never after” campfire-story ending, before segueing to the next story via animated comic-book panels. It’s all great fun, with horror masters King and Romero clearly enjoying riffing on each other.
Creepshow 2 (1987) pales next to its predecessor, its three stories largely failing to meet the standard set five years earlier. “Old Chief Wood’n’head” treads over-familiar ground in using Native American mysticism as a plot-driver, with the eponymous lurching statue taking uninspiring revenge on some dodgy white folks. Straightforward and stupid creature horror “The Raft” sees a bunch of college assholes getting high on a lake before being besieged and killed by an amorphous blob beast. The film saves the best for last in “The Hitch-Hiker,” a relentless, gory chiller in which a callous businesswoman is haunted by her own hit-and-run victim. Each of the three suffers from a lack of imagination, relying on tired tropes that would only terrify kids. Then again, the psychotronic animated wraparound suggests that may be the film’s intent – despite its R rating.
The least well-known (and quietly the best) King-driven anthology is undoubtedly Cat’s Eye (1985). Directed by Cujo‘s Lewis Teague, its wraparound material links its three stories together narratively, rather than presenting them as discrete shorts. Plucky tomcat General and post-Firestarter Drew Barrymore take us on a tour of an American Northeast littered with references to other King stories. Christine, The Dead Zone, Cujo, and Pet Sematary all receive casual shoutouts, but the film’s three stories all come from the collection Night Shift. The best of the three, “Quitters, Inc,” puts a chain-smoking James Woods at the mercy of the titular addiction clinic, motivated to quit via surveillance and threats to his family. “The Ledge” sees washed-up tennis pro Robert framed and blackmailed by dishonest casino-owning gangster Kenneth McMillan, forced to circumnavigate a skyscraper’s outer window ledge for McMillan’s enjoyment. The final story “General” dives into full-blown fantasy as Drew Barrymore adopts a friendly tomcat, who is subsequently framed for murdering the family’s parakeet by a tiny, murderous troll. Cat’s Eye alternates between effective tension-building, psychological gamesmanship, and clever effects sequences, ultimately building to – surprise! – a happy ending. Who knew?
As one might expect, Stephen King’s short story adaptations run the gamut of quality. It’s curious: some of his short stories have been turned into features (like Children of the Corn, 1408, and the much-maligned Maximum Overdrive); some into television episodes; and many into “dollar baby” shorts (many of which have gone largely undocumented). The adaptation process varies. When adapting novels to features, things often get cut; when adapting short stories to features, things get added or kept as-is, depending on the story. But adapting short stories into short films produces a satisfying one-to-one result: there’s inherently more emphasis on concept than on plot or character, which are better suited to features.
But where can one watch short films? Outside of festivals, it’s hard to find shorts in a cinema environment. Often, they end up in a YouTube window, or worse, in total obscurity, occupying a space often considered “lesser” than features. Anthology films, then, are a happy compromise between the two: shorts in a feature’s clothing.
Despite a lull in the ‘90s and early 2000s, anthology films are coming back in style. Films like V/H/S, Southbound, and The ABCs of Death have proven cult hits, with even some mainstream crossover. Peak Television’s embrace of the anthology series – whether by episode, as with Black Mirror, or by season, in American Horror Story – suggests there’s a market for smaller, self-contained genre stories. But King has remained oddly absent from that revolution. An anthology series based on Nightmares and Dreamscapes aired back in 2006, but there’s still material left to mine. JJ Abrams may be producing a King-inspired seasonal anthology series in the form of Castle Rock, but it’s not quite the same.
Plenty of King stories could yet thrill us onscreen. “The Jaunt,” for example, or “Survivor Type,” or “The Monkey,” would make for terrific, horrific viewing if done correctly. Perhaps the time is right for a Creepshow series – or perhaps something utilising the darker story-framing devices found in “The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands” or “The Breathing Method.” Maybe even a collection of King’s more melancholy stories – you know, for the feel-bad crowd.
After all: feeling bad’s what horror is all about.