As one of the greatest and most prolific horror authors of all time, it is always surprising that some of Stephen King’s most highly rated and best remembered movies do not feature people with supernatural powers, vampires or other monsters from the darkest depths of the author’s mind, but are just simply stories about people . Coming of age movie Stand By Me, based on King’s novella The Body, is one of his most loved movies, and having been released 35 years ago it has gone on to inspire references in many other movies and TV shows including The Simpsons, who featured it in their Treehouse of Horror series, and more recently Stranger Things, which pulls very strongly from the King vibe.
The movie became an instant classic on its release, primarily due to the performances by its young leads, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, Wil Wheaton and River Phoenix. While Corey Feldman had already appeared in a number of high profile movies such as Gremlins and The Goonies, River Phoenix’s big break would be Stand By Me at the age of 14, and his performance as Chris Chambers would instantly see him heralded as potentially one of the greatest future actors of the generation. However, only seven years later, Phoenix’s life would be cut short when he died from an accidental drug overdose in 1993. He was only 23 at the time of his death.
Stand By Me became the movie that everyone would reference when looking at Phoenix’s tragically short career, thanks to his commanding performance as leader of the central group of kids. Even at the age of 14, the actor had such a mature way of performing, creating a character that could be both cocksure and vulnerable and damaged at the same time. There were no other actors of the time, or in many cases since, who could bring to a role what Phoenix could, and even with the likes of Kiefer Sutherland in supporting roles, it was Phoenix who will always be the stand out of the film.
Something similar could be said of Stephen King himself. For all the horrors he has provided over the years, from The Shining and IT, through the apocalyptic vision of The Stand and the epic eight volume The Dark Tower saga, King has always said his writing is about people and how those people are affected by what happens to them in the stories. This is fully on display in Stand By Me, as King’s love of showing the everyday horrors of childhood and the resilience of children in overcoming them, whether it is knife-wielding bullies or flesh-eating alien clowns. In Stand By Me, it is the dark, allure of death that is dissected, and how when children discover death first hand, it is something that can be pushed to one side but never forgotten.
Three and a half decades on, the performances, the story and legacy of Stand By Me is perfectly intact and if anything has only grown over the years. Containing one of the few performances of River Phoenix, who would have been standing alongside some of the greatest actors working in Hollywood today, it is not hard to see why the movie even more iconic now than on its release, and it stands as another of those classic films that makes the 1980s such a fondly remembered time by those who lived through them.
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