I was a Stephen King fan growing up, but my family lacked the means to keep up with my literary habits. This meant that I couldn’t always guarantee the name-brand horror that I craved, so I eventually learned to give other genre writers a chance. That’s how I discovered the weird world of Dean Koontz novels, and I’m glad that I did.
Having sold over 450 million books, Koontz isn’t exactly an obscure author operating in a little-known niche, yet I rarely see horror fans discussing his many contributions to the genre. Some may see him as a less-edgy Stephen King, and though his stories are usually lighter in tone than most of King’s output, that doesn’t make them any less engrossing. In fact, Koontz is just about the only author to have really competed with King over their audience, with their friendly rivalry even being referenced in their stories. At the end of the day, they’re two distinct voices crafting popular genre fiction, so there’s no point in constantly comparing them.
Of course, there is one big difference between the two writers that may be responsible for Koontz’s less favorable status among genre fans. As of 2020, there are currently over 50 adaptations of Stephen King’s work, and many of them are considered absolute classics. Koontz, on the other hand, only has about half that many credits to his name (but only if you count the strangely abundant Watchers sequels), and most of these have been forgotten. That’s why I’d like to take a look back on these adaptations, as I believe that the lack of an active fanbase doesn’t mean Koontz’s writing is inherently inferior.
However, keep in mind that I won’t be covering every single adaptation in this article (especially since many of these are out-of-print TV movies), so feel free to bring up your own unmentioned favorites in the comments below.
Ironically, Koontz’s career was jumpstarted by the success of a 1977 adaptation of one of his early novels, Demon Seed. Directed by Donald Cammell, the eponymous film chronicles the horrific exploits of an organic super-computer that kidnaps its creator’s wife and attempts to create new life within her. That same year, there would also be a French adaptation of his novel Shattered (about a newly-wed couple fleeing from a psychopath during a road-trip), which became Passengers.
While neither of these films were veritable blockbusters, they were popular enough to cement Koontz as a reliable source of thrilling narratives and likable characters. Even so, it would actually be a while before studios would once again turn to the author for a movie deal, as we’d only see a new adaptation of his work in 1988 with Jon Hess’s Watchers.
Based on one of Koontz’s most popular books, Watchers tells the story of a young man who adopts an impossibly intelligent golden retriever (a recurring theme in several Koontz stories) with mysterious ties to a bloodthirsty monster. Receiving middling reviews after a limited theatrical run, Watchers is by no means a masterpiece, diverging heavily from the source material and lacking the budget to properly portray the main antagonist, but I still enjoy the hell out of this weird little creature feature. It doesn’t have the emotional impact of the book and it’s hard to take the mutant beast seriously, but there’s still just enough heart to make it a worthwhile watch (though the lovable dog character may be a huge part of that).
As I mentioned before, Watchers would go on to become a franchise, spawning three wildly inconsistent direct-to-video sequels (all produced by the B-movie legend Roger Corman), while Koontz himself would reuse several themes and ideas from the novel in his future projects. Eerily smart canines and genetic aberrations would become something of a Dean Koontz staple after being featured prominently in books like the Moonlight Bay series.
Over the next few years, there would be a couple more low-budget Koontz adaptations like Whispers and Servants of Twilight, but the most notable of these is Yves Simoneau’s 1997 miniseries Intensity. Our own Meagan Navarro covered this gem a few weeks ago, praising it as a highly suspenseful piece of psychological horror, and I most definitely agree. Based on one of my personal favorite Koontz stories, the series follows Chyna Shepherd (Molly Parker) as she encounters a disturbed serial killer (John C. McGinley) after a Thanksgiving celebration gone wrong.
Not only is this a compelling miniseries in its own right, but it (and the novel it’s based on) almost certainly served as the blueprint for Alexander Aja’s New French Extremity classic, High Tension. This iconic slasher may boast more brutal kills and a few more twists and turns than the made-for-TV production, but there’s no denying that a few of the film’s set-pieces seem to have been lifted directly out of Koontz’s imagination.
In 1998, we’d also see Joe Chappelle’s Phantoms, a decidedly larger production featuring the talents of Rose McGowan, Peter O’Toole and even Ben Affleck. For those who haven’t seen the film, the story chronicles the chaos that ensues after residents of a small resort town vanish without a trace. Critics may not have been very fond of it at the time, but I still enjoy it as a highly atmospheric sci-fi thriller, even if it doesn’t manage to convey the same sense of cosmic horror present in the original novel.
After that, we’d see a couple of Fox-produced TV movies until Martin Scorsese was brought onboard as the executive producer of USA Network’s Frankenstein project. Based on a treatment co-written by Dean Koontz and Kevin J. Anderson, the movie was originally conceived as the pilot for a proposed television show reframing Mary Shelley’s iconic characters in a modern-day setting. Frustrated with the Network’s creative decisions, Koontz ended up withdrawing from production and transforming the project into a five-book series. While there is some controversy regarding exactly how much of the story belongs to Koontz, it’s clear that the novels are a much more passionate take on what is arguably the most important horror story ever told.
Finally, in 2013 we’d see the last (and possibly best) Dean Koontz adaptation with Odd Thomas, helmed by The Mummy and Van Helsing director Stephen Sommers. While the filmmakers took quite a few liberties with the source material (Elvis’ ghost is only briefly alluded to due to licensing issues), the late Anton Yelchin knocks it out of the park with his portrayal of Koontz’s most endearing protagonist. The movie may have a few tonal quirks, but I believe that corporate sabotage was the real reason that Odd Thomas never found its audience.
Due to an absurd lawsuit regarding marketing fraud, the movie was completed in 2011 but was only released two years later in a regrettably limited theatrical run. While the dismal box-office and lukewarm reviews were bad enough, the untimely passing of Yelchin a few years later shattered all hopes of an Odd franchise (while also robbing us of one of the most charming and talented performers of the 2010s).
Seven years later, there’s still no sign of a large, studio-backed Dean Koontz adaptation. Sure, we’re getting a new series based on his novel Devoted, but it’s unfortunate that so much of Koontz’s repertoire has been ignored over the years. The author may have his fair share of literary quirks (especially with the increased focus on religious elements in his more recent output), but I believe he more than makes up for this with consistently compelling characters and a unique set of horror/sci-fi influences.
While I enjoy several of the films mentioned in this article, it’s a real shame that cinematic titans like Stanley Kubrick, John Carpenter, Frank Darabont or even Mike Flanagan never tackled a Dean Koontz yarn. Going over the author’s history with adaptations, it seems that many of the creative forces behind these films and television shows were more concerned with the flashy premises of his stories rather than the earnest character work at their core (though there are a few exceptions).
With the right team behind the project, I’m certain that quite a few Koontz novels could become classic horror movies if given the chance, and that’s why I think the definitive Dean Koontz adaptation has yet to be released. We can only hope that it happens soon.