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1408 (2007)

Ah, Stephen King.

In the thirty-mumble years he’s been writing horror, a lot of his work has naturally been adapted to the screen. The results have been… mixed. At the high end we find The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption, and Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, the latter of which scared the everloving piss out of its audience and remains a classic in its genre. At the low end we have movies like Maximum Overdrive, The Langoliers, and Children of the Corn.

I am happy to say that 1408 is at the upper end of this spectrum.

Released in 2007, 1408 stars John “Say Anything” Cusack and Samuel L. “Snakes on a Plane” Jackson, with Tony “Hey It’s That Guy” Shalhoub in a minor role. It was directed by Mikael Håfström and adapted from King’s short story of the same name.

Mike Enslin (Cusack) is a horror writer who travels across the country investigating so-called “haunted” sites, documenting his experiences and rating each one on his “Shiver” scale from one to ten skulls. However, he has become cynical and jaded, failing to observe any genuine hauntings amid a lot of hype and atmosphere offered by otherwise unnoticed flyspecks wanting to drum up business. This changes when he receives in his usual pile of mailed suggestions one entry that piques his interest – a postcard from the Dolphin Hotel, inscribed with a warning: “Don’t stay in 1408.” Of course, this is the equivalent of saying to anyone in a horror movie “Don’t go in the woods,” “Don’t investigate that spooky house,” and especially “Don’t read the demon summoning spell in that book bound in human skin and then record it for the next bunch of unlucky campers to stumble across and start everything all over again. YOU. DUMBASS.” So naturally Mike wants to stay in 1408.

To his surprise, not only does the staff of the Dolphin not welcome the stay of a pseudo-famous writer in the infamous 1408, but the manager, Gerald Olin (Jackson) actively tries to discourage him, showing him photographs and news clippings of all the suicides (lots) and accidental deaths (fewer, but still statistically high) that occurred in the room, each one occurring within an hour of the victim’s arrival. Olin asserts that there is nothing in the room – the room itself is malevolent. Mike is impressed by all the trouble Olin is going through to warn him about this scary scary haunting, and decides to stay anyway. Finally, Olin acquiesces, and Mike gets his hotel room.

And Mike discovers that Olin was absolutely right.

This movie is unique amongst haunting stories in that there is, as Olin makes clear, no actual concrete presence in the room, no phantom or demon for the audience to hate. It’s just a hotel room, and so the audience rides along with Mike’s building frustration and fraying sanity as the room drags him kicking and screaming into the darkest corners of his own troubled psyche, forcing him to confront the death of his daughter Katie (of some unspecified illness) a year before, and his subsequent estrangement from his wife. The room’s visions are unbearably cruel, soon seizing on Mike’s powerlessness to save his family, and twist the knife over and over while Mike struggles to outwait an hour-long countdown (helpfully provided by the clock radio in the room), hoping against hope that when the hour is up, the room will be done with him, while intermittently being taunted by the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” as the leitmotif of unfathomable evil.

I haven’t seen many movies that manage to pull off the evil genius loci effectively, but 1408 manages pretty well. The idea of being trapped in a confined area that hates you shovels on the paranoia fuel in a way not seen since the Wall Monsters of early D&D. More than that, it can dig into your mind and conjure up the most traumatic memories you have, meaning you have no defense because it’s like being tortured by your own brain. More than that, 1408 will happily put you in an endless feedback loop of your own worst fears, but it won’t kill you. Oh no. That would be too easy. It makes you kill yourself, like the unholy spawn of Jigsaw and the Overlook Hotel.

John Cusack certainly had his work cut out for him, carrying the bulk of the action opposite an evil hotel room, but he pulled it off. As the room hits him with more and more nightmares, you really get a sense that rather than being the two-dimensional jerk he might have been in a lesser movie, Enslin is a real person, with a real history and genuine reasons for what he does. On some level he wants to believe in an afterlife, because then he has a chance to see Katie again, but as an atheist he can’t even allow himself this solace. And good old Sam Jackson, playing a character originally described as a white middle-aged British man, is comfortably no-nonsense in his relatively brief role as the guardian of his hotel guests and the last barrier between Mike and yet another boring stay in a not-haunted room monstrous, mind-bending psychological torture.

All in all, while the premise is very simple, the execution is brilliantly done, using little details to mess with the viewer’s mind just as the room messes with Mike’s. While the “haunted hotel” thing has already been done by King, here the scares are condensed to a single room, offering a more claustrophobic setting and tenser atmosphere as its hapless victim slowly goes maybe-crazy drowning in his own fears and anxieties. Just try not to rent it next time you’re traveling abroad.

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