There’s something to be said about horror films in the 2000’s. ‘Shit’ is one word that comes to mind but in all fairness, I’m pretty impenetrable by now when it comes to being scared by horror films so when I say that they’re shit, I mean when it comes to actually scaring me. However, a horror film can still be good even if it doesn’t scare me. It just has to be an interesting concept that’s (relatively) well executed. That’s brings us to ‘1408’.
If long term readers can cast their minds back to the very first review I ever did on this site, ‘Cell’, a truly miserable experience that’s based on a novel by Stephen King and starring two of my favourites actors (John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson) who looked more bored than if they’d been forced to read the source material in an entirely different language. However, in that review, I put a comparison between ‘Cell’ and ‘1408’ being that they’re both film adaptations of stories by Stephen King and they both star John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson.
I have ragged on Stephen King’s writing ability in the past which is a bit rich for me considering the only book I’ve ever written reviewed very well with my family, but no one seems to be interested. All I did was point out that an unsettling number of Stephen King’s stories have pretty much the same plot of a writer with personal problems and or tragic backstory find themselves having to battle an invisible evil usually in a small town in America.
So, what’s the plot of ‘1408’?
Have a wild guess.
Mike Enslin (John Cusack) is a somewhat known author of ghostly books about staying in haunted places and judging them on how scary the place is with the criteria seeming to be the effectiveness of the backstory and his own experience. More often than not, he’s disappointed. However, after receiving an anonymous postcard telling him not to check into room 1408 of the Dolphin Hotel in New York City, Mike decides to do the opposite and gives the hotel a call. Despite being fobbed off by the hotel staff, Mike goes to the Dolphin Hotel and is met by the hotel’s manager, Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson). After Mr Olin’s unsuccessful attempt to deter him by describing in full detail to room’s violent and deadly history, Mike checks into 1408 and over the course of one hour, he is subject to the walloping impact of the room’s unknown supernatural force.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first, the producers definitely found a strong lead in John Cusack. I like to compare John Cusack to Brad Pitt in that they are both great character actors. If you give them a good character, they’ll run with and won’t disappoint. John Cusack was great in ‘The Grifters’ as Brad Pitt was great in ‘Fight Club’. They’re both also guilty of playing themselves especially in their respective big budget disaster films, ‘World War Z’ for Pitt and ‘2012’ for Cusack. You can hardly blame them. They were no doubt offered a lot of money to do those films and they were very much aware that they may have been the leads, but they were not the stars. The films events and the visual effects were the stars. They were just there to fill space when there wasn’t anything exploding. Admittedly, I would have watched ‘2012’ even if John Cusack hadn’t have starred in it but I probably wouldn’t have watched ‘1408’ if it wasn’t John Cusack on the poster.
There it is. My love letter to John Cusack. Such as it is.
One of the big things that I feel works in favour of ‘1408’ as opposed to ‘Cell’ is that ‘1408’ is a short story whereas ‘Cell’ is 350 pages which is a lot of context to pack into a 98 minute film. And also, ‘1408’ is adequately paced. The spookiness unfolds gradually which is a good way to handle spooky films.
Another thing that sets ‘1408’ apart is that the progress of the film is driven by the actions of the protagonist because a large chunk of the film is Mike on his own in the room being confronted by largely himself. Here, we’ll have a look at the character of Michael Enslin.
At the start of the film, Mike is a sceptic of ghosts and doesn’t believe in God or an afterlife so in many ways is the perfect person to do thorough investigations of haunted places. It’s not like ‘Most Haunted’ where 99.9% of the crew believe in ghosts and so of course they’re going to experience spooky things. I would love to write an article about ‘Most Haunted’ because it is the most shameful of my guilty pleasures.
Anyway, it’s understandable that Mike will want a decent challenge when it comes to wanting to experience a paranormal event since he so desperately wants to be proved wrong. When the employees start denying him access to the room, he begins to get suspicious.
There are a couple of things in the early stages of the film that the plot really tries to cover up as best as possible.
You’re probably asking yourself, ‘if the manager doesn’t want Mike to stay in 1408, why not just say that the room doesn’t exist or is used for storage?’ That was something that I asked myself and the plot offers up some excuse that Mike’s publisher, Sam (Tony Shalhoub) found a law (which is real) that demands that the hotel allow him to check in otherwise they can be sued for discrimination or something like that. The guest cannot demand which room to stay in, but the hotel is not legally allowed to turn the guest away. The hotel is allowed to expel or reject guests that they feel to be ‘objectionable’, but it has to be a ‘reasonable objection’ such as the person is known for trashing hotel rooms etc. I doubt that turning Mike away because he wants to stay in a ‘haunted’ room would stand up in a court of law. However, I’m sure Gerard could put up a good case given the brutal history of the room. Anyway, this law is mentioned in the phone call and then never mentioned again, not even in the scene between Mike and Gerald when it would be the most pertinent or it could be that Gerald is aware of this law and is trying to convince Mike to walk away.
There are a number of things that Gerald could have done to stop Mike entering that room since he is certain that Mike will die in there. Frankly, if there really had been 56 deaths in that room ranging from suicide to heart attacks and strokes and four of those deaths had been under his watch, there must be a bigger step to take other than making the room unavailable. Bordering it up would be a good place to start and then saying that it doesn’t exist anymore. I personally would say that the room is no longer used to accommodate guests. They can’t sue for that. Not only is the room key openly accessible from behind the front desk and not say, locked in a safe in the managers office so no one but him can access it but 1408 is cleaned once a month. Why? If he is no longer going to open the room for guests, then just lock the door and don’t think about it ever again.
The conversation between Mike and Gerald in his office is remarkably interesting and effective because it offers some context as to Gerald’s hesitation in handing over the key. It is a bit of an exposition dump but we’re dealing with two incredibly talented actors so it’s not boring. It starts with Gerald trying to bribe Mike with a room upgrade and then with an expensive bottle of either whiskey or scotch (I’m not an expert at identifying identical brown liquids), but nothing seems to work so he goes into the bloody history of 1408.
Personally, it’s one thing to spend a night in a haunted house or room because I’m with Mike on that one. I don’t believe in ghosts and ghoulies but on the other hand, I wouldn’t spend the night in a haunted place on my own. Whilst I maintain my belief that there is no afterlife therefore the equal inexistence of ghosts and spirits, merely knowing the history of the location in question and claimed sightings and placing yourself in said location on your own and then turn all the lights off, your brain brings up the defences and puts you on alert. It knows that you’re on your own but it’s equally preparing you in case you suddenly become not alone therefore you’re expecting to see and hear some confirmation that you’re not on your own so that’s too much for me. That’s one thing. If I were told that the room I wanted to stay in has also been the place that 56 people have either gone insane, taken their own lives or just plain died mysteriously, I’d give it a miss.
On the elevator ride up to the room, Mike asks the question on everyone’s mind which is ‘Why don’t the owners close the room?’ and Gerald gives the half-arsed answer that the company that owns the hotel prefer to think that there’s no problem ‘just as they pretend there’s no 13th floor’. Apparently, big American hotels don’t have a 13th floor because of superstitious guests so they instead rename it to the 14th floor. The Emily Morgan Hotel in San Antonio, Texas is notorious for having no 13 floor, no room numbers ending in 13 and also having no room 1408 because it adds up to the unlucky number 13. However, these precautions haven’t stopped guests and employees from experiencing ‘supernatural occurrences’.
It’s just as well because according to Gerald, the room is not haunted by a ghost or a poltergeist or a demon, it is the room itself that is evil. As Mike soon discovers, 1408 is the ‘Silent Hill’ of hotel rooms in the occupant’s past is projected back at them with attacks of symbolism. It is through these events that we learn Mike’s backstory and is cynicism towards the existence of life after death.
One moment that does raise a question mark with me is when Gerald and Mike arrive on floor 14, Gerald won’t get out of the elevator stating that ‘this is as close as I get to 1408 unless it’s that time of the month’ but, aren’t there other guests staying on that floor? If it’s alright for them to be near 1408, then why not you? What if they need the manager urgently? That’s not great for business. It was alright for the engineer to stand in the doorway of 1408, he just didn’t go inside.
So, Mike gets into the room and things start off pretty slowly as you’d expect. Mike seems largely unimpressed with the spookiness of the room given that it looks like a hotel room. Gradually, spooky things start happening the bed sheets and toilet paper change each time he enters the bathroom or bedroom but when the clock radio turns on by itself and then changes into timer counting down from 60 minutes. This can be manipulated from outside the hotel room but when, that’s when he begins to become unnerved.
The final straw is when Mike sticks his head out of the window to try an alleviate a sudden onset of Tinnitus but when he pulls his head back in, the window slams down onto his hand, causing him great pain and aggravation. However, when he talks to the desk and demands to check out and a cab to the hospital the operator doesn’t seem concerned and a transfer to Gerald doesn’t work so he hangs up. As he tries to leave, the doorknob breaks off and the key is sucked out through the other side. Other attempts to leave such as walking along the outer ledge of the hotel to the next room and crawling through the vent don’t work so Mike is fumbled as to how he will escape.
Then come the ‘Silent Hill’ aspects where Mike is subjected to psychological attacks from his past. From these, we learn that Mike once had a happy family life with his wife, Lily (Mary McCormack) and daughter, Katie (Jasmine Jessica Anthony) but his daughter was struck with an unspecified and incurable illness and died at a young age. Katie’s death left Mike angry and led to not only the breakdown of his marriage but caused him to reject the existence of God.
Then the room starts trolling Mike by making him believe that his whole experience was result of a concussion he sustained after a surfing accident that happened early on in the film. Then the audience is thinking ‘if this really was all a dream, I want my money back’, which is perfectly reasonable because I was thinking that even though I watched it on DVD and I wasn’t the one who paid for it.
Rest assured; this was all due to the trolling mentioned above. Mike ends up back in a ruined 1408 and faced with the walking and talking visage of his dead daughter. This scene is really sad and it’s mostly effective due to Cusack’s performance because he’s initially in denial when he sees Katie. He knows that the room is trolling him but when he sees that her bare feet are bleeding from walking on the rubble of the destroyed room, he falls to his knees revealing his desperation to see his daughter again. Emotionally broken and beaten down, Mike holds his daughter only for her to go limp and then turn into charcoal and crumble in his arms as the timer hits zero.
In a split second, Mike is returned to the 1408 he walked into an hour ago and receives a phone call from the hotel operator. Mike is given a choice, he can either relive the hour of unpleasantness or he can use the ‘express checkout system’ which loosely translates to suicide. Now we as the audience can see what happened to the other guests who stayed in the room. Mike makes his choice and through a narration, he tells us that he has lived the life of a selfish man but he will not die as one. In that, he uses the remnants of the whiskey bottle given to him by Gerald and the bandana that he used to bandage his wounded hand (that has now healed because the time has reset) and makes a Molotov cocktail. If he’s going to die then he’s taking the room with him.
Mike sets fire to the room which translates to the real world. As the sprinklers come on, Mike throws an ashtray through the window which causes a backdraft and lights up the whole room.
Now, here’s where things get confusing because there are four endings to ‘1408’ and two of them are largely the same.
I watched it on DVD, so I got the ‘Director’s Cut’ ending where Mike dies in the fire and at his funeral, Gerald offers Lily the box of Mike’s belongings they retrieved from the rubble. She refuses the box and isn’t impressed when Gerald tells her that Mike did a good thing by destroying the room. Gerald then gets into his car and plays the charred but nonetheless functional Dictaphone that Mike used to record conversations and lines for his book. On the tape, he hears both Mike and Katie speaking before seeing Mike’s burned ghost in his rear-view mirror. The scene then changes to the burnt out remains of 1408 where Mike’s unburned ghost smokes a cigarette before being called away by Katie and disappearing. This ending was disregarded from the Theatrical release.
The other ending I saw was the theatrical version where Mike is pulled out by firefighters and survives his injuries. Whilst recuperating with Lily in L.A., he receives the box of his belongings from 1408. After the fire, the Dolphin closed, and Mike retires from his job of writing ghost stories. He to plays the Dictaphone and he listens to the exchange between himself and Katie as Lily listens in horror. Mike gives her a really strange look and the film ends. There’s an extended version of this ending showing Mike in the hospital after the fire and gives the Dictaphone a little bit more context since Lily is disbelieving of Mike’s experience in 1408. The recording of Mike and Katie confirms his story. This version is probably my favourite just because Mike survives and he’s able to go through one of my beloved character arcs.
There is another ending that shows shows Mike’s publisher, Sam retrieving the first draft of Mike’s book about 1408 that he presumably wrote in the alternate reality or something, I don’t know, I haven’t seen it.
None of these endings are the same as the book’s ending which shows that Mike survived the fire he caused in the room but in the aftermath, he never fully recovered physically or psychologically and will forever be haunted by his experience. This is also a good ending.
‘1408’ had a budget of $25 Million and cleared $133 Million at the box office as well as receiving a mostly positive reception from critics.
For me, ‘1408’ deserves to be watched for its story and characters rather than whether it’s scary and there are still a few unanswered questions. It’s never mentioned how or why the room came to be the way it is or who sent Mike the postcard but honestly, hearing the words ‘It’s an evil fucking room’ come from Samuel L. Jackson is worth it.
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