A man who specializes in debunking paranormal occurrences checks into the fabled room 1408 in the Dolphin Hotel. Soon after settling in, he confronts genuine terror. (IMDB synopsis)
What a treat it was to watch Scream for the first time on Monday! Such a good movie. Where to go from here, I wonder? Ooh, I know! I’ll revisit one of my old favourites. 1408 is a film I was obsessed with eight years ago, even before my latent interest in horror movies had begun to manifest. I was even building my own doll’s house version of the eponymous hotel room (instead of, you know, having friends). But enough about that. Time to revisit this film and see if it really is as good as I remember!
In the first few minutes, we see our main character, Michael Enslin, draw up to a ‘haunted’ off-road inn where he plans to stay the night. Michael is a so-called occult writer with no first-hand experience of the paranormal, which explains his apparent bitterness, disillusionment with his profession and being a sarky bastard in general. John Cusack does well with these kinds of roles; I doubt Keanu Reeves, the filmmaker’s first choice, could have pulled it off.
The plot of this film gets kicked off when Mike gets an anonymous postcard telling him NOT to stay in room 1408 of the Dolphin Hotel in New York city. And yes, 1 + 4 + 0 + 8 = 13. He figures that out straight away, so he must be quite genre-savvy.
Before he checks into the room, however, he meets with the hotel’s manager, Gerald Olin – played by, yaaaaay, Samuel L. Jackson! The manager brings Mike up to his office and does his darndest to prevent Mike from entering the room, telling him of the deaths of 56 previous guests, bribing him with $800 cognac and offering him extensive notes and a different room to stay in. This scene is my favourite, by the way. Mr. Olin is genuinely trying to help Mike, but Mike is so stubborn and arrogant that their conversation becomes more like a battle of wits. Sadly, Olin stops just short of saying, “I’ve had it with these motherf***ing deaths in this motherf***ing hotel room!” which would definitely make me sit up and take notice.
I’ll talk more about Olin later, but anyway, Mike manages to talk him down, and he goes into 1408 and makes himself at home. At first, he wanders around a bit, snarking into his handheld recorder without incident, and then we get our first jumpscare as the radio turns on and little chocolates appear on his pillow. This is typical; all movie ghosts and poltergeists like to warm up by acting on their surroundings in non-threatening ways, e.g. turning on electrical equipment, building stacks of playing cards, opening cupboard doors, mowing the back garden and so on. Mike himself makes a similar comment: “Finally I got something to write about. A ghost that offers turndown service.”
The room continues to mess with Mike as the bedside clock/radio begins to count down from 60 minutes, confirming what Olin said earlier about nobody lasting more than an hour. The bedroom window bites Mike’s hand and the door locks itself, refusing to let him leave. After that, well, the room get more aggressive in its approach, and Mike presumably wishes he’d stuck to writing fiction.
I found out a few years ago that this film was based on a short story of the same name by Stephen King, which I’ve now read, and it’s very effective for what it is. Of course, the film has to expand on a lot of points, and that’s no bad thing. It’s stated by Olin that the room doesn’t exactly have a resident spook or spectre, and is just “an evil f***ing room”. We’re never told why, but the implication is that it’s a room on the 14th, or technically 13th floor, the numbers add up to thirteen and so on. So, how does it kill off its guests? By throwing all of their regrets, fears and personal demons at them, of course! And Mike is no exception. Once the point’s been hammered home that no, he ain’t leaving any time soon, the room bombards him with excerpts from his past – most notably, the death of his young daughter, his separation from his wife and his estrangement from his father. Meanwhile, the layout of the room becomes increasingly horrifying, and the temperature plummets, going from burning hot to freezing cold, but then isn’t it always one way or the other in hotel rooms? It’s NEVER the right temperature. And don’t get me started on those scratchy towels. Tsk.
I think Cusack carries the role very well, considering his character is stuck in a room for more than an hour of screen time. Other people do pop up now and again-
-but Mike has a hard time knowing what’s real and what isn’t, which adds to the overall sense of terror. The room can mess with his perceptions of reality and interfere with his attempts to communicate with the outside world.
Now, I said I was going to talk about Olin. One of the things I LOVE about that office scene is the way it ratchets up the suspense, but another thing is Olin himself. He’s a disturbing perceptive dude, able to make numerous jabs at Mike’s character as he makes a case for not going into 1408. He then appears again INSIDE the room – in a mini-fridge, no less – and works as a direct extension of its evil, throwing even more accusations at Mike. “How many spirits have you crushed?” Not cool, man! Not cool! Well, I mean, yes, it’s a fridge, so it IS a little… where was I?
Oh yes. If I have to find fault with this movie – and I do – it’s that the ending does go on and on and on. First of all, it leads us to believe that Mike experienced the whole thing as a dream, albeit a significant one, and that he’s begun to make amends and atone for his mistakes. And then, whoops, it wasn’t just a dream! The room’s made Mike believe he escaped and then brought him right back again. And then, whoops! We think his hour is up, and then it turns out he’s doomed to repeat this hour over and over again until he commits suicide. It does occur to me that dragging out the ending in this way is meant to make the viewer feel just as frustrated as Mike is, and thus more sorry for him, but I guess it depends on said viewer’s tolerance, and bladder size.
Yup, I still like the film! Maybe not the best thing ever, but it’s refreshing to see a horror movie that delves so deeply into individual character study. If Paranormal Entity was a dry hunk of inedible cardboard, 1408 is a juicy BLT with extra mayonaisse. Just one thing: I do advocate watching the Director’s Cut version of this film. The final, final resolution is more of a downer, but I think it’s more satisfactory too. And don’t forget to watch the commentary track! It’s oodles of fun for obsessive movie nerds like you and me.
Oh, you’re not…? Fine. Just me then.
7 1/2 jam sandwiches.