In 1999, Stephen King found himself confined to a hospital room "after a careless driver in a minivan smashed the shit out of me on a country road." There, "roaring with pain from top to bottom, high on painkillers," and surely more than a little bored, he popped a movie into the room's VCR. But it didn't take long before its cinematic power got the better of him: "I asked my son, who was watching with me, to turn the damn thing off. It may be the only time in my life when I quit a horror movie in the middle because I was too scared to go on."
The movie on King's bootleg tape ("How did I get the bootleg? Never mind how I got it") was The Blair Witch Project, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez's ultra-low-budget horror picture that sent shockwaves through the independent film world at the end of the millennium.
Though nobody seems to talk much about it anymore, let alone watch it, King's appreciation has endured: he wrote the essay about it quoted here in 2010, and you can read it in full at Bloody Disgusting. That same site has also published a list of fifteen horror movies King has personally recommended, Blair Witch and beyond.
The list below combines King's picks at Bloody Disgusting, which lean toward recent films, with a different selection of favorites, with a stronger focus on classics, published just last month at the British Film Institute. "I am especially partial – this will not surprise you – to suspense films," the author of Carrie, Cujo, and It writes by way of introduction," but "my favorite film of all time – this may surprise you — is Sorcerer, William Friedkin’s remake of the great Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear. Some may argue that the Clouzot film is better; I beg to disagree."
- The Autopsy of Jane Doe (André Øvredal, 2016) "Visceral horror to rival Alien and early Cronenberg"
- The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999)
- The Changeling (Peter Medak, 1980)
- Crimson Peak (Guillermo del Toro, 2015)
- Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder, 2004) "Snyder’s zombies are, it seems to me: fast moving terrorists who never quit."
- Deep Blue Sea (Renny Harlin, 1999)
- The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)
- Duel (Steven Spielberg, 1971) "His most inventive film, and stripped to the very core."
- Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955) "He out-Hitchcocked Hitchcock."
- Final Destination (James Wong, 2000)
- Event Horizon (Paul W.S. Anderson, 1997) "Basically a Lovecraftian terror tale in outer space with a The Quatermass Experiment vibe, done by the Brits."
- The Hitcher (Robert Harmon, 1986 and Dave Meyers, 2007) "Rutger Hauer in the original will never be topped, but this is that rarity, a reimagining that actually works."
- The Last House on the Left (Dennis Iliadis, 2009)
- The Mist (Frank Darabont, 2007)
- Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957) "The horror here is pretty understated, until the very end."
- The Ruins (Carter Smith, 2008)
- Sorcerer (William Friedkin, 1977)
- Stepfather (Joseph Ruben, 1986)
- Stir of Echoes (David Koepp 1999) "An unsettling exploration of what happens when an ordinary blue-collar guy (Kevin Bacon) starts to see ghosts."
- The Strangers (Bryan Bertino, 2008)
- Village of the Damned (Wolf Rilla, 1960) As far as "British horror (wrapped in an SF bow), you can’t do much better."
- The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015)
Though clearly a movie fan, King also shows a willingness to advocate where many a cineaste fears to tread, for instance in his selection of not just Sorcerer but several other remakes besides (and in the case of The Hitcher, both the remake and the original). He even chooses the 2004 Dawn of the Dead — directed by no less an object of critical scorn than Zack Snyder — over the 1978 George A. Romero original.
But then, King has always seemed to pride himself in his understanding of and rootedness in unpretentious, working class America, which you can see in his novels, the various film adaptations of his novels that have come out over the years, and the sole movie he wrote and directed himself: 1986's Maximum Overdrive, about machines turning against their human masters at a North Carolina truck stop. King now describes that project as a "moron movie," but as he clearly understands, even a moron movie can make a powerful impact.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.