A quick refresher on the state of the horror genre in 2007.
While the jury is still out on the rest of 2017, you can make a pretty solid case that 2007 was the second-best year for Stephen King movies. The best is not up for debate: 1983 featured the theatrical releases of The Dead Zone, Christine, and Cujo, forever marking that as the peak of King’s cinematic successes. As a runner-up, though, 2007 was no slouch. That year featured the release of The Mist, the rare King movie to be held in some circles as an improvement on the source material, and 1408, the highest-grossing Stephen King horror adaptation of all time.
If you’re like me, that last nugget might have caught you by surprise. Even acknowledging that box office numbers are difficult to compare across eras — inflation and Hollywood’s increased emphasis on opening weekends makes comparing 1983 to 2017 misleading at best — it’s still a shock that none of King’s better-known horror stories hold that title. Not the original Carrie or the 2013 remake. Not Misery. Not Pet Cemetery or even the original theatrical release of The Shining. At $20.6M, the opening weekend for 1408 is far and away the best of King’s career, with only Misery coming within 10 million of the movie’s total domestic gross of $71.9M.
This all begs the question: how did 1408 become the highest-grossing horror film of Stephen King’s career?
At first glance, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. 1408 is based on one of King’s short stories, not one of his novels. That approach of adapting his shorter works (including novellas) had always worked well for the author’s dramatic adaptions — Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption remain beloved to this day — but the idea that King’s breakout film would be devoid of any of his signature characters or landmarks is a strange proposition. There’s also the fact that 1408 is essentially a chamber horror movie with a few expensive special effects thrown in. Did audiences really feel this strongly about 100 minutes of John Cusack wandering around his hotel room with bulging eyes? The movie would seem a little old fashioned no matter what decade it was released.
Here’s where context matters. As critics, we like to claim that we set aside all of our cinematic baggage the moment we step into a theater, but it’s harder than you think to divorce a film from the context surrounding its release. Take a movie like Wonder Woman. No matter what your feelings are on Patty Jenkins’s superhero film, there’s no denying that it rode a wave of DCEU criticism and demands for more female-driven superhero movies into theaters. That context affected how it was received by audiences. If you’re a fan, you would argue that Wonder Woman finally delivered on many of the things you’d hoped to see from Hollywood for years. If you’re a skeptic, you might say that it at least disrupted the routine for summer movies and offered us a fresh take on a familiar format. They say that the one constant in life is change, but if you watch hundreds and hundreds of movies every year, change is a pretty good constant to have.
1408 wasn’t released in a vacuum, either. King’s adaptation hit theaters at the height of public hand-wringing about “torture porn,” the then-in-vogue subgenre or mode of horror cinema often credited to popularity of films by Eli Roth and James Wan. Major news outlets such as NPR and the BBC had published articles asking pointed questions about the movement, and Hollywood showed no signs of slowing things down. The year prior to 1408‘s release had seen an influx of particularly shocking horror movies; big-budget remakes of The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had pulled in tens of millions of dollars at the domestic box office, while more traditional torture-porn entries like Saw III and Hostel had finished among the year’s highest-performing films. Critics even asked the cast and crew of 1408 to weigh in on the current state of the horror genre. In an interview with Collider, producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura described his film as attempting to go beyond the “call to the extreme,” arguing that the genre was big enough for movies that had something emotional to say.
Read between the lines a little bit and it’s not difficult to see writers simultaneously responding to both the movie and the genre in their reviews of 1408. The New York Times praised the film for its “old-fashioned restraint.” CinemaBlend, which also praised the movie’s restraint, called it “a humble little horror thriller.” Empire, despite an overall mixed review, noted that 1408 is proof that “you don’t need piles of body parts to make a scary movie.” In fact, so many critics used 1408 as a staging ground for attacks against contemporary horror movies that Rolling Stone‘s Peter Travers used his own review to defend Eli Roth. “The fact that 1408 is relatively free of gore,” Travers wrote, “has encouraged some critics to use it to attack what they call the torture porn of such directors as Hostel‘s Eli Roth.” Context matters for any new release, but sometimes audiences and critics coalesce around a movie they might not otherwise admire because it seems to answer a question on everyone’s minds.
So that’s perhaps the real reason why 1408 broke out at the box office: it was the right movie for the right moment. As studios finally embraced the depravity of video nasties in their big-budget releases, audiences and critics alike found the slightly stodgy scares of 1408 to be an oasis in the midst of shockingly violent horror. And so it was that an old-fashioned movie about a man, a ghost, and a tape recorder became one of the surprise hits of the summer.