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The best performances in Stephen King movies, ranked

It’s time for summer, which means more barbecues in the backyard, more people crowding the local swimming pool, and more trips to the movie theaters to catch the latest blockbuster. A new tradition for moviegoers has been watching scary movies during the hot weather months, with last year delivering the frightfully scary horror movie The Black Phone, among many others.

This year is no different, with The Boogeyman now scaring audiences in multiplexes across the nation. The horror movie, about two sisters being terrorized by an unseen menace in their spacious and creaky home, is just the latest in a long line of Stephen King adaptations. From 1976’s Carrie to the It movies, these films have not only delivered thrills and chills, but also surprisingly good performances. From killer clowns to telekinetic teenagers, these performances are among the best ever in Stephen King’s movies.

8. Tim Curry and Bill Skarsgård, It

The two Pennywises in the It movies.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

How do you portray pure evil? That was the challenge awaiting actors Tim Curry and Bill Skarsgård when they were approached to portray Pennywise, a demonic clown who murders kids every 30 years in the 1990 miniseries and 2017 and 2019 theatrical adaptations based on King’s massive novel It.

It’s easy to make clowns scary, but it’s hard to make them truly terrifying and memorable, and that’s what both actors did with their performances. Slightly campy yet always serious, initially playful but forever menacing, their Pennywises were the stuff of nightmares, and it’s a testament to the work that they did that most people will shudder at the sight of a sewer drain or a floating red balloon.

7. Keith Gordon, Christine

A possessed teenager behind the wheel of a car glares in Christine.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The gradual corruption of an innocent soul is a hard thing to play for an actor, and Keith Gordon doesn’t get enough credit for pulling it off in John Carpenter’s superb adaptation of King’s novel Christine. Gordon plays Arnie, a terminally awkward high school nerd who buys Christine, a demonically possessed 1958 Plymouth Fury. Going from geek to chic, Arnie dates the most popular girl in school, but he also begins to become more moody, angry, sullen, and eventually, violent, which manifests itself in the possessed car killing anyone who hurts Arnie or gets in the way of the car’s hold on him.

I never buy high school makeover scenes, as the “before” is usually unconvincing, but the beauty of Gordon’s performance is that you can buy him as a total loser and as a transformed cool kid, which helps the audience to accept Archie’s tragic downfall as he begins to willingly give himself over to Christine. It’s not easy to buy a toxic relationship between a boy and his car, but Gordon makes you believe it, and you sympathize with Arnie even when he does truly despicable things.

6. Morgan Freeman, The Shawshank Redemption

Morgan Freeman looks up in The Shawshank Redemption.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

At the 1995 Academy Awards, the Best Actor race was largely between Tom Hanks for his performance as the clueless doofus Forrest Gump and John Travolta, who staged a comeback with his spaced-out hitman in Pulp Fiction. Yet the best male performance of that year came from fellow nominee Morgan Freeman, who delivered terrific work as Ellis “Red” Redding in The Shawshank Redemption.

The movie, a modest, but now beloved cult classic, centers on Tim Robbins’ Andy Dufresne, but it’s Freeman’s Red that is the heart of the movie. Wise but flawed, Freeman imbues the character with a strength and resilience that extends beyond the character’s prison surroundings. It’s the very definition of a “quiet performance” that gradually builds over the course of the movie, and reaches it’s apex at the end with that moving final image.

5. Kathy Bates, Dolores Claiborne

A woman looks concerned in Dolores Claiborne.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Kathy Bates won an Oscar for Misery in 1991, but it’s her work in the largely forgotten 1995 movie Dolores Claiborne that is quieter and better than her largely one-note Anne Wilkes. As the title character, Bates communicates a lifetime of hardship and compromises with just a few words and haunted glances.

Unlike most of King’s works, Dolores Claiborne isn’t a traditional horror story, but in telling a narrative centering on domestic abuse and family trauma, it’s still just as terrifying. And Bates does a great job at showcasing Dolores’ steeliness and quiet suffering without being too showy or melodramatic. Dolores is a character who doesn’t asked to be liked or understood, and Bates intuitively understood this. She gave the best performance of her career as a result.

4. Christopher Walken, The Dead Zone

A man wears a black coat in The Dead Zone.
Paramount Pictures / Paramount Pictures

While Christopher Walken is now beloved as an easily imitable elder statesman of movies, it’s important to remember just how weird of an actor he was when he first started out. From his Oscar-winning role in The Deer Hunter to the underrated alien biopic Communion, Walken looked and acted like no other actor working, and his performances were almost otherworldly to watch.

That’s probably why David Cronenberg hired him for The Dead Zone, a film that gave Walken one of his best roles ever as Johnny Smith, a psychic who realizes he can change the future by preventing the visions he sees from happening. Johnny is supposed to be odd and out of step with the rest of the world, and Walken nails that slightly alienated feeling brilliantly.

3. Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, Carrie

A daughter is held by her mom in Carrie.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

There’s never been a mother/daughter duo quite like Margaret and Carrie White. As brought to life by Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek in Brian De Palma’s horror classic Carrie, the two are social outcasts, the mother for being religiously devout and the daughter for being shy, awkward, and nerdy. Both women are capable of sudden violence, to others as well as to each other, and it’s their complicated, violent relationship that eventually brings about the near destruction of a small town.

Both roles are tricky for actresses to sell, and that’s largely the reason why all those Carrie remakes fail to measure up to the original. Even talented actors like Julianne Moore and Chloe Grace Moretz fail to replicate the terrifying magic that Spacek and Laurie brought to their roles. At once realistic and otherworldly, their performances were truly two-of-a-kind, and ones that brought well-deserved Academy Award nominations in 1977.

2. Wil Wheaton and River Phoenix, Stand By Me

A boy holds another boy in Stand By Me.
Columbia Pictures

Like the two performances in Carrie, it’s hard to separate Wil Wheaton and River Phoenix’s excellent work in the 1986 film Stand By Me. A faithful adaptation of King’s short story The Body, the movie focuses on four preteen boys who venture into the woods to see a dead body. Along the way, they learn valuable lessons about friendship, family, and, yes, growing up.

Stand by Me is now synonymous with the phrase “coming of age,” and the movie isn’t entirely devoid of pat clichés and cheap sentiments, but what makes the movie so effective, and so memorable, after nearly 40 years is the thoughtful best friendship between Wheaton and Phoenix’s characters. The actors understand their characters’ shared pain is what connects them, and what ultimately drives them to not only seek adventure in one eventful summer in 1959, but also to eventually leave their small town that they know will kill their dreams.

1. Jack Nicholson, The Shining

Jack Nicholson looks at the camera in The Shining.
Warner Bros. / Warner Bros.

Could it be anyone else? As the struggling writer and damaged family man Jack Torrance, Jack Nicholson, who by 1980 had already won an Oscar for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and become one of the most respected actors of his generation, gave a performance that was instantly iconic, parodied, and endlessly scrutinized by fans and critics alike.

Some people dismiss Nicholson’s performance as over-the-top, and they are right. That’s the point of the performance; how else would a man who gradually loses his mind behave? In The Shining, what’s truly terrifying isn’t the elevators full of blood or the ghosts haunting the empty halls of the Overlook Hotel, but the fact that a person you thought you knew, a father or husband you loved, can transform before your very eyes into an ax-wielding maniac hell-bent on your destruction. Only someone as talented and, let’s face it, as committed, as Nicholson at the height of his powers could have pulled off such an indelible performance.

Editors' Recommendations

Jason Struss
Section Editor, Entertainment
Jason is a writer, editor, and pop culture enthusiast whose love for cinema, television, and cheap comic books has led him to…
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