“It’s an evil fucking room.” Samuel L, Jackson, as Dolphin Hotel manager Gerald Olin, sums up the nature of the evil in 1408 with his usual pithy bluntness. In this intense horror flick based on a Stephen King short story and directed by Swedish filmmaker Mikael Håfström, there are no visible ghosts (well, maybe a few short-lived ones), headless phantoms, or flesh-eating zombies. And thank God, because it’s generally so much scarier without them. The baddies in this film are forces unseen, demons who possess a room rather than haunt it. Part nightmare, part acid trip, part psychological thriller, 1408 is one of the more successful King adaptations, combining the cerebral with the visceral in a way that may even outstrip Kubrick’s The Shining (which, for the record, has never been one of my favorite Kubrick films).
Before making the fateful decision to stay in room 1408, writer Michael Enslin (John Cusack) is a ghost hunter and avowed skeptic, dismissing the supernatural after the sickness and death of his daughter Katie (Jasmine Jessica Anthony). It’s a typical mortal’s scoff, an atheist’s appeal to pity in the manner of the misguided modern philosopher Bertrand Russell. “What sort of God would do this to a child?” Enslin asks. His renunciation of painful memories is not limited to blaming God; he has also walked out on his wife Lily (Mary McCormack) and forsaken his former life in New York, moving cross-country to live on the sunny shores of California. Enslin’s purpose in life has become ridiculing the spiritual: he visits haunted houses and writes pulpy accounts of his experiences, deceiving the masses into thinking they’re true stories. Little does he know he’ll soon find himself imprisoned in the very type of surroundings he pens fluff about. Locked inside, he’ll be forced to confront the demons he’s dismissed.
From the get-go, the film creates a palpable aura of suspense. “That room is unavailable, sir,” a spectral voice announces on the other line of the telephone when Enslin first calls to make reservations. And upon check-in, a member of the hotel staff throws a dagger Enslin’s way in the form of a scowl before escalating the issue to the more genial Olin, who does everything in his power to prevent Enslin from staying, including recounting the “56 deaths” that have occurred there. There’s something sinister afoot, all right, and soon we’ll be wondering whether Enslin is a pawn in a sadomasochistic betting game among specters disguised as human beings. Too bad that Jackson’s rather dry recitation of his lines shows him as a bit out of his element. Olin’s a far cry from the badasses we’re used to seeing Jackson play, like Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction and Mace Windu in the Star Wars prequels. Though Olin’s repeated evasions of Cusack’s requests for the room key are central to the feeling of anticipation, it could have been handled with a little more mystery, a little less matter-of-fact-ness.
Not that it matters too much, since Cusack quickly becomes the primary focus. That 1408 is able to maintain its intensity despite taking place mostly within the confines of a hotel room is a tribute to John Cusack’s mercurial performance in the lead role. In particular, Cusack conveys Enslin’s grief for Katie with human poignancy without wallowing in sentimentality. Other times, we see him bolting to and fro like a caged rat, speaking to his microcassette recorder in hurried whispers and trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. Cusack’s nuanced portrayal certainly deserves more credit for the foreboding atmosphere than the special effects, which are often tawdry. The elemental fury that is unleashed comes across as overblown and fakey: ghoulish air whistles in from the window; the thermostat temperatures switch from hellish heat to arctic cold; the walls and floor split apart as if torn asunder by an earthquake, and water engulfs the room. Presumably Håfström wants us to think in terms of end-of-the-world scenarios, but this is just one man’s experiences after all—it shouldn’t look too much like 2012.
The flood, however, despite looking like it was filmed in a large bathtub, serves as a marker of the film’s compelling narrative structure. Near the beginning, Enslin gets into a surfing accident and almost drowns. We don’t think much of it until later when the same scene reoccurs just as the waters in the apocalyptic room reach their height. Has Enslin finally escaped from room 1408 or is the torture just ramping up? Where and when did the film even begin? Could he have been in 1408 from the beginning? We don’t know what to think at first because Enslin’s senses are in overdrive. The “circles of hell” he whispers about furtively to his recorder could represent the devolution of his mental state into schizophrenia, the unrelenting power of demonic possession, or perhaps the ever-darkening warnings of his conscience. Such uncertainty should spur the viewer to form his own conclusions, and that’s a good thing. It’s a rare event these days: a thought-provoking film that doesn’t beat you senseless with its meaning, a film that leaves room for multiple interpretations.
Which ultimately makes for a horror movie you won’t want to escape from.
Joe’s Grade: B+