When Stephen King is talking about the finest horror films of all time, it is the duty of the genre’s community to listen, and listen intently. Horror cinema, and the creative genre itself, owes a lot to the great Stephen King. Responsible for countless classics, including The Shining, directed by Stanley Kubrick, Carrie, It, Pet Sematary, Salem’s Lot, The Mist and many more, King has helped to shape the landscape of modern horror with his timeless, terrifying tales.
Famously opposed to Kubrick’s adaptation of his 1977 novel, The Shining, despite it being considered one of the finest horror movies of all time, King told Deadline: “I think The Shining is a beautiful film and it looks terrific and as I’ve said before, it’s like a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it. In that sense, when it opened, a lot of the reviews weren’t very favourable and I was one of those reviewers. I kept my mouth shut at the time, but I didn’t care for it much”.
So, what of his very favourite horror films? The below list, composed by Open Culture, charts Stephen King’s favourite modern horror films, extracting King’s opinion from interviews by the likes of Bloody Disgusting, the BFI, and Fandor.
Including creature features, revolutionary contemporary classics and dark, atmospheric chillers, let’s take a look into Stephen King’s 10 favourite modern horror movies.
Stephen King’s 10 favourite modern horror movies:
The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez, 1999)
The infamous found-footage horror film of the 1990s, The Blair Witch Project was, in many ways, a literal ‘project’ that challenged the cinematic medium as well as audience expectations, forcing a brand new sub-genre onto horror.
Unapologetically unsophisticated and rudimentary, Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s film is simple, following three young film students through the woods as they try to capture footage of the urban legend, ‘The Blair Witch’. What results is a frantic dash through the Maryland wilderness with rare moments of respite, as the characters become lost in a labyrinth of occult mystery. It’s a paranoid chase scene with an invisible predator and horror at its most basic, resurfacing in your mind every time you go for a nighttime stroll.
Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder, 2004)
It’s rare that horror sequels are ever even slightly good, so it’s somewhat of a miracle that Zack Snyder’s remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead makes for such an entertaining piece of adrenaline-pumping cinema.
Starring the likes of Sarah Polley, Ty Burrell and Ving Rhames, Dawn of the Dead is elevated by an invigorating script from The Suicide Squad director James Gunn. Following the same story as the original film, Dawn of the Dead sees a collection of unlikely heroes team up in a shopping mall to fight and survive against an army of dogged zombies. Violent and joyously playful, this is one of Snyder’s greatest ever achievements.
The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)
Part monster film, part a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare, it’s no wonder Stephen King enjoyed this modern classic from Neil Marshall. A cinematic achievement on the smallest scale, The Descent was shot in very limited, tight spaces.
Horror is at its best when it’s at its most simple, with The Descent playing on the same fears as the unknown fears of a gloomy forest, though replacing this overused cliche for the depths of some underground caves. It’s a horrible, highly uncomfortable watch following a group of young women on a caving expedition in America who find difficulty when the intricate cave system collapses and a new breed of terror stalks their whereabouts.
Final Destination (James Wong, 2000)
An obscure low-budget horror flick that would trigger an unlikely camp franchise, Final Destination is a hugely enjoyable horror film that recalled the luscious, violent joys of the early Grand Guignol.
The unique story follows Alex Browning (Devon Sawa) who experiences a premonition that the plane he is supposed to travel on will crash, leading him and his high school friends to engage in a dance of destiny with death. A big fan of James Wong’s film, King wrote in his book Danse Macabre, “I love all these movies, with their elaborate Rube Goldberg setups – it’s like watching R-rated splatter versions of those old Road Runner cartoons – but only the first is genuinely scary, with its grim insistence that you can’t beat the Reaper: when your time is up, it’s up”.
The Hitcher (Dave Meyers, 2007)
A remake of the 1986 classic starring Rutger Hauer, The Hitcher is a grubby horror road movie, starring Sean Bean, the star of Game of Thrones, and the antagonist of James Bond in Goldeneye.
The story of Dave Meyers’ remake follows a serial killer (Bean) who frames two college students for his crimes whilst they give him a ride. Whilst Stephen King acknowledges Rutger Hauer in the original film, he also states, “Sean Bean is great in the role Hauer originated. Do we really need this film? No. But it’s great to have it, and the existential theme of many great horror films – terrible things can happen to good people, at any time – has never been so clearly stated”.
The Last House on the Left (Dennis Iliadis, 2009)
Banned in multiple countries, including the UK and the US, The Last House on the Left remains a seminal piece of horror cinema, Wes Craven’s 1972 classic that is. Taking us into the depths of human depravity, Craven dissects the human spirit and questions the true extent of individual capability.
Stephen King has opted to go with the 2009 remake of the film from Dennis Iliadis however, with the author noting, “The best horror movie of the new century. The Dennis Iliadis version is to the original what a mature artist’s painting is to the drawing of a child who shows some gleams of talent. The 2009 Last House is the most brutal and uncompromising film to play American movie theatres since Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”.
The Mist (Frank Darabont, 2007)
Based on Stephen King’s own novella, The Mist is a terrifying Lovecraftian horror, following the inhabitants of a small American town when a mist holding deadly creatures descends on their existence.
Starring the likes of Laurie Holden, Jeffrey DeMunn, Toby Jones and Andre Braugher, The Mist is certainly one of the great modern Stephen King adaptations. As the author himself noted, “Frank Darabont’s vision of hell is completely uncompromising. If you want sweet, the Hollywood establishment will be pleased to serve you at the cineplex, believe me, but if you want something that feels real, come here”.
The Ruins (Carter Smith, 2008)
Eerie and brutally violent, The Ruins toys with the ancient evils of the undergrowth in a film that follows two friends on a Mexican holiday who partake in an archaeological dig in the jungle, only for a sinister beast to stalk their movements.
Another literary adaptation, Carter Smith’s version of Scott B. Smith’s novel lacks the atmosphere and dread of the original, though still certainly holds some weight. As Stephen King explained in his novel, “The sense of dismay and disquiet grows as the viewer begins to sense that no one’s going to get away. With its cast of mostly unknowns, this would play well on a double bill with Snyder’s Dawn [of the Dead] remake”.
The Strangers (Bryan Bertino, 2008)
“It starts slowly and builds from unease to terror to horror. Why is this happening? Just because it is,” Stephen King said of Bryan Bertino’s modern chiller that continues to seize audiences’ fears to this very day.
Playing on the pure fears of home invasion, Bryan Bertino’s film follows a young couple, played by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, who are terrorised by three masked assailants whilst on vacation in an isolated home. Suffused with a truly creepy energy, The Strangers is executed brilliantly, playing well with its central concept of home invasion with three terrifyingly designed villains.
The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015)
Having only directed two feature films, following a trio of short film projects, it’s truly impressive to acknowledge how much of a following that filmmaker Robert Eggers has gained following 2015s The Witch and The Lighthouse starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson.
Whilst The Lighthouse is certainly a modern great, it was The Witch that had the more considerable impact on contemporary cinema, particularly for the horror genre. Bringing traditional folk-horror to the mainstream, Robert Eggers’ The Witch is a dreaded countryside fairy-tale, perpetuating solitary paranoia in 1630s New England. Where folk-tales of witches were once shot in muddy, cheap grain, Eggers adopts a sharp resolution with fantastic cinematography making use of the limitations of natural light.
How good did Stephen King think it was? It “scared the hell out of me”.