Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, we ring in the release of It: Chapter Two by exploring the various adaptations of the master of horror, Stephen King. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Horror, like springing a booby trap, is all in the timing. Stephen King is at his indisputable best when he’s only got a short time to take. In his best works, he only needs a few pages to grow the dread around you quick enough to snap you up before you even realize there’s no way out – baiting the snare with just enough cleverness to get you sniffing at it.
Loosely based on parapsychologist Christopher Chacon’s investigation of room 3327 at the Hotel Del Coronado, 1408 is the quiet, unassuming, devious booby trap of the haunted house genre. King wrote the short story as a writing exercise to illustrate his process. He featured it in his book on writing called (wait for it) On Writing and then ended up finishing it and publishing it in the audiobook Blood and Smoke because “this story scared me while I was working on it” (and it would “scare the HELL out of” him in the audiobook).
Director Mikael Håfström was attracted to the movie adaptation because he “connected with making a film in a hotel” – which is deliciously perfect because, as King wrote in his forward to the original short, “hotel rooms are just naturally creepy places, don’t you think?”
We begin on a dark and stormy night a cliche cornball enough for an eye roll) and that eye roll comes courtesy of hack writer Mike Enslin (John Cusack). We drive with him through the storm somewhere in the country to a creeptastic bed and breakfast known as the Weeping Willow Inn, where he will be staying the night in the hope that he will meet a ghost for his latest book.
In most horror films, we are asked to set aside our normal cynicism because the plot won’t work unless we do. In 1408, however, we are dared from the start to indulge in it, judging the validity of ghosts right alongside our main man Mike as he nods and shrugs through scary story after scary story until it’s time for bed. And just when it seems a damp-haired little girl demon will crab-walk through the drywall… nothing happens.
For the first 30 minutes of the movie, we hang with Cusack’s jaundiced, cynical Mike, the actor giving us a crustier, on-edge version of Rob Gordon from High Fidelity whose personality matches his janky car. We, like Enslin, start to wonder if there’s even a horror movie to be had, craving “a glimpse of that elusive light at the end of the tunnel.” Which makes the moment he receives a portentous postcard from the Dolphin Hotel with “Don’t Enter 1408” in nondescript handwriting on the back (no return address, as if the hotel itself sent the invite) so enticing: If it can make a grump like Enslin intrigued, maybe it’s legit. The trap is set.
Soon, Mike is in New York and in the unsettling lobby of the Dolphin, sporting his heart-stopping Hawaiian shirt. Management is alerted, and in walks Samuel L. Jackson’s suave, but cagey Mr. Olin, who proceeds to spend a solid ten minutes trying to convince Enslin not to stay in room 1408. Mike shrugs those off as nonsense, to which Olin calls Enslin a ”talented, cynical man who doesn’t believe in anything but himself.”
In a way, these lines reveal the true appeal of 1408: It gets horror fans, and is willing to operate on their level. We don’t really believe in ghosts or ghouls. We are here to see something spooky or silly, a good gag that delights us but doesn’t pose a risk. So when Olin looks directly in the camera and says “Please don’t do this,” there’s a moment where we suddenly kinda, really don’t think it’s a good idea after all. But by then, it’s too late; we are stuck with Enslin in the flypaper. Once the door to 1408 closes, the trap is sprung and the nightmares begin.
These lines reveal the true appeal of 1408: It gets horror fans, and is willing to operate on their level.
The fourth most successful Stephen King adaptation takes the warning Olin gives that “no one lasts more than an hour” literally, and for the next 60 minutes of practically real time, you’re stuck in that room with Mike, with no way out. From visions of mysterious women watching from across the street to a nightmarish repetition of The Carpenter’s “We’ve Only Just Begun,” to a classic late-aughts movie fakeout where (twist) Mike only thought he was out of the room, 1408 is stripped-down horror at its greatest.
Besides Jackson, 1408 sports a few rare supporting performances from Mary McCormack as Mike’s concerned ex, Jasmine Jessica Anthony as his young daughter, and a cameo from Len Cariou (the original Sweeney Todd). But it’s Cusack’s show through and through, a jittery showcase of hunched shoulders, trembling lips and quivering hands as the specters of the room eventually get to him. It’s a Nic Cage-level freakout of the highest order, Mike’s psyche getting pulled apart memory by memory like the legs of a helpless bug.
1408 often gets overlooked in the spectrum of Stephen King adaptations, probably because it feels like the kind of late-fall direct-to-DVD thriller we had a dime a dozen of in the waning years of the video store era. But like its source material, it’s a chilling, economical haunted house ride that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Honestly, for the sight of a tiny Sam Jackson taunting John Cusack from a minifridge alone, 1408 is a trap well worth getting stuck in.