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Film

Stephen King's 10 best cinematic villains

Outside of the realms of filmmaking, where such names as Tobe Hooper, Alfred Hitchcock, William Friedkin, David Cronenberg and Wes Craven have come to define the horror genre, there are few creatives that have had more of an impact than the American author Stephen King. Responsible for countless classic tales, including The Shining, Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Mist and many more, King has helped to shape the landscape of modern horror with his timeless, terrifying stories. 

Writing intricate tales of monstrous creatures and dark psychological nightmares, King has created such disturbing villains as Pennywise, from the clown thriller It, and the psychopathic Jack Torrance from The Shining among several other iconic characters. Whether they’re disturbing with rage or driven by a dark, possessive force, King contextualises his villains within a tangible framework that makes their presence all the more terrifying. 

With over 60 cinematic adaptations, choosing Stephen King’s ten best cinematic villains was no easy task, with the evil antagonists from such movies as Gerald’s Game, Stand By Me and Pet Semetary, having to be omitted. Take our look at our cut of the ten best cinematic villains from the mind of the iconic horror author, below. 

Stephen King’s ten best cinematic villains:

10. Christine – Christine (John Carpenter, 1983)

Though certainly not one of John Carpenter’s most famous movies, the 1983 adaptation of the killer-car thriller Christine remains a camp, entertaining ride. Telling the story of a boy who buys a 1958 Plymouth Fury that begins to display evil tendencies, Carpenter’s film is an underrated Stephen King adaptation that proves to be surprisingly scary as well as a whole load of harmless fun. 

Featuring the ever-charming presence of Harry Dean Stanton among many other classic cast members, Christine is fueled by the surprising villain at the heart of the film which proves to be a domineering threat. 

9. Cujo – Cujo (Lewis Teague, 1983)

Whilst Stephen King is known for his menacing creativity when it came to his literary villains, you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise with the first two antagonists being an evil car and a sinister Saint Bernard. A genuinely scary pet-turned-beast, Cujo is the dog at the centre of Lewis Teague’s film of the same name that follows a friendly dog who contracts rabies and becomes a terrifying threat to a small American town. 

Sometimes the most simple monsters are the scariest, with King’s Cujo proving this beyond doubt as the author creates a threatening brute from one of the kindest dog breeds around. 

8. Mrs. Carmody – The Mist (Frank Darabont, 2007)

Known for having one of the most brutal endings in modern cinema, Frank Darabont’s adaptation of King’s The Mist is a harsh thriller that tells the story of a freak storm of fog that unleashes a flurry of bizarre bloodthirsty creatures on a small American town. Suggesting that the real monsters are humans themselves, King’s antagonist (aside from the tentacled beasts) is Mrs. Carmody, a religious preacher, played by Marcia Gay Harden in the film. 

Overbearing and manipulative, Mrs. Carmody uses the word of God as an excuse to enact her will on a group of random people seeking safety in a convenience store. 

7. Warden Norton – The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994)

Known as one of the highest-rated movies of all time, many don’t realise that The Shawshank Redemption is indeed a Stephen King tale. A prison drama that tells the story of two men who seek redemption for their crimes in prison, the main antagonist of The Shawshank Redemption is the cruel and sadistic Warden Norton, played by Bob Gunton, who is intent on keeping order whilst preventing personal salvation. 

Accepting bribes whilst treating the prisoners with contempt, Norton, the captain of the prison guards, is a forgotten villain of King’s oeuvre, but one who remains appropriately detestable. 

6. Kurt Barlow – Salem’s Lot (Tobe Hooper, 1979)

There are few horror images that remain as iconic as Kurt Barlow, the yellow-eyed, pale-faced vampire of Tobe Hooper’s adaptation of Salem’s Lot. Holding a terrifying visual identity as well as creepy mannerisms that call back the distinctive style of F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, there’s no doubt that Barlow provides much of the luscious horror in Stephen King’s gothic novel that follows a novelist and a young horror fan who try to save a small town from the threat of vampires.

Made into a mini-series in 1979, Salem’s Lot from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper was celebrated upon its release and is due for a remake in the near future. 

5. Percy Wetmore – The Green Mile (Frank Darabont, 1999)

A celebrated movie from the seasoned Stephen King filmmaker Frank Darabont, The Green Mile stars Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan and Sam Rockwell. A religious drama that follows the life of guards on Death Row who are affected by the actions of a black man accused of child murder and rape, who appears to hold a mysterious gift, Darabont’s film is well-known as one of the best adaptations of King’s novels. 

The sadistic prison warden Percy Wetmore, played by Doug Hutchison, is a nasty piece of work, however, who seeks to torture and break the inmates of his wing rather than see their humanity.  

4. Pennywise – It (Tommy Lee Wallace, 1990)

Which Pennywise is better? The classic Tim Curry version or the modern Bill Skarsgård one? The appropriate answer is probably, ‘a bit of both’ with Skarsgård of the 2017 film holding the physical presence whilst Curry possesses the acting chops to pull such a sadistic, leering character off. For the sake of this list, we’ve gone for the original version, mainly due to the fact that director Tommy Lee Wallace treats the antagonist of It with more intrigue than the more generic take of the remake. 

Stalking the children of Derry in the summer of 1989, Pennywise is an ancient evil disguised as a clown to manipulate the town’s young folk, often proving disturbingly successful. 

3. Margaret White – Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)

Often toying with the horrors that can exist within religion, King’s novel Carrie tells the story of a shy teenage girl with telekinetic powers who is sheltered by her domineering mother with a power complex. Though Julianna Moore does a brilliant job of portraying the terrifying motherly figure in the 2013 remake of the movie, nothing can beat Piper Laurie’s performance in Brian De Palma’s 1976 original. 

Starring alongside Sissy Spacek, Laurie is a creepy figure of hatred in De Palma’s movie, holding a vice-like grip over the title character, leading her to carry out her evil deeds.

2. Jack Torrance – The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

Stephen King may not have appreciated Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his novel, The Shining, but this hasn’t stopped horror fans from adoring the movie for decades. Set in the magnificent, fictional Overlook Hotel, the tale follows Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and his family who opt to look after the hotel over the winter, where a violent evil begins to influence his quickly crumbling mental state.

Nicholson’s cruel psychotic descent is a true marvel to watch, elevating the performances of his co-stars, particularly Shelley Duvall who radiates an unrivalled physical fear. The Shining is a mesmerising horror experience crafted by Kubrick but piloted by Nicholson.

1. Annie Wilkes – Misery (Rob Reiner, 1990)

A fallible, obsessive human, Annie Wilkes, the antagonist of Rob Reiner’s 1990 classic adaptation of Misery, is Stephen King’s best-ever cinematic villain, partly due to the Oscar-winning performance of Kathy Bates in the role. A sly, intelligent psychological thriller, Misery is a compelling commentary on the nature of writing and authorship, telling the bizarre story of a relationship between an obsessive fan (Bates) who cares for a bed-bound writer (James Caan) in her secluded home.

Where Pennywise exists as a peculiar ethereal entity and Torrance is little more than a possessed mind or malevolent spirit, the presence of Annie Wilkes is a truly terrifying one. An insane personality, between good and evil, Wilkes is an obsessive who would go to great lengths to enact her inner-most desires. None of King’s other villains is quite as sadistic.