Whether our nation's religious parents realize it or not, hell is a pretty weighty concept to drop on a child. I used to spend many sleepless nights wondering what that place was like. My first assumption was a dark cavern filled with living Madballs, but I eventually settled on the theory that hell was a place that knew what scared you the most and tortured you with it in endlessly creative ways.
When Dimension Films' 1408 was released in 2007, the mere concept of it frightened me, because it was pretty much exactly like my childhood vision of hell. Unfortunately, that made it harder to resist watching. Your mileage may vary, but I think it's scarier than Poltergeist or The Ring, or heck, even Return To Oz. It's massively underrated.
As far as adaptions of Stephen King stories are
concerned, 1408 turned out better than it could have,
especially when you consider it's an adaption of one of his short
stories. You know, the ones where the script writers have to fill
in a lot of the blanks on their own....
"It's called The Lawnmower Man. The studio just bought the rights."
"What's it about?"
"It's about a.....lawnmower man."
"That's all there is, pretty much."
"Throw in something about virtual reality, that stuff's hot these days."
1408 is an expansion of the ideas King
played with in The Shining's Room 237. The central
character of both the short story and the movie is Mike Enslin, a
bitter, sarcastic and skeptical man who is famous for writing
tourist books about allegedly haunted buildings. He spends the
night in them, he rates them ("FOUR SKULLS!") and then
moves on to the next one. He has many devoted fans who show up to
his signings, but he doesn't believe a word of what he writes. He
plays up the spooky aspects of his visits, but he knows it's all
fake. His public life is a sham, and his personal life is a mess
(but we'll get to that).
John Cusack plays Mike. It would be easy to make this character irritating or loathsome, even by accident, but Cusack manages to make Mike's rough edges come across as charming. Though you almost want what's about to happen to him to happen, you also kinda don't.
One afternoon, Mike is shuffling through his
mail when he finds a postcard from New York's fabulous, fictional
Dolphin Hotel. There's one sentence written on it: "DON'T
ENTER 1408." Mike does some quick math and notes those
numbers add up to 13. "Cute," he remarks.
If someone doesn't want him to enter a place, he's taking that as a challenge. He calls up the Dolphin and says he wants to rent room 1408. "That room is unavailable," says the voice on the other end. "I didn't tell you which night," Mike says, puzzled. He rattles off a ton of dates and only gets one answer: "Unavailable." Then the man hangs up.
Mike won't accept any other answer than "yes." His lawyer digs up an old law that states if you request a specific hotel room and it is available, they have to give it to you (note: this law doesn't exist). Armed with knowledge of the law, Mike flies to NYC and marches into the Dolphin personally to speak with the manager. While he's waiting, an overeager employee gets in his face. "Can I help you with your bag?" he eagerly asks. "No," Mike tells him coldly.
The manager arrives...Mr. Olin, played by
Samuel L. Jackson. "We have good news, Mr. Enslin...we've
decided to upgrade you to a penthouse suite." Mike will have
none of that...it's 1408 or nothing. Olin insists they speak in
Mike tells him once he writes about 1408, the Dolphin's bookings are going to rise significantly, so he'd be crazy to refuse. Olin says it's not about the money, and he doesn't need any extra business because "we're always at 90 percent capacity." He just doesn't want anyone going in 1408. EVER.
Olin hands Mike a thick file. He tells him the reason room 1408 is so notorious is because no guest has managed to survive an hour in it, and usually, their deaths happen by suicide, as if they just couldn't take one more second. Mike is like "pffft, yeah right." Olin tells him to open the file. It's full of newspaper clippings going back to the 1930s, reporting people who have jumped out of 1408's windows. Said leaps are among the least bizarre of 1408's many gruesome incidents. "One man managed to drown himself in his chicken soup." "How?" asks Mike. "How indeed?" says Olin with a raised eyebrow.
Mike just can't believe Olin is so committed to
this bit. Why, there's no such THING as ghosts! He's been in
every allegedly haunted hotel in the country except for this one!
He's GOTTA get in and bust this sham wide open! And then lie to
everyone and talk about how spooky it was!
As a last-ditch effort, Olin offers Mike the expensive bottle of cognac sitting in his office. "$800 when you can find it. Yours for free." Mike takes the bottle...then says he's still staying in 1408. "DAMMITTOHELL," Olin utters.
As Mike enters the elevator to ride to the
thirteenth floor, Olin pleads with him to turn back. "1408
gets a light cleaning once a month...we treat the room as if it's
a chamber filled with poison gas. We only stay ten minutes and I
INSIST the door remain open." A closed door seems to be the
point of no return. He says a maid once accidentally locked
herself in the bathroom for a few moments and when they got the
door open, they found she had gouged her eyes out with her own
"DON'T....DO THIS," Olin warns with stern sincerity as Mike turns to exit.
"See ya tomorrow!" Mike says cheerily.
As Mike slowly walks down the thirteenth floor
hallway and the numbers on the doors climb, he leafs through the
file. There are a lot of grisly photos inside from those who have
died there. For one brief moment, Mike has a look on his face
that suggests he's finally thinking "maybe I SHOULDN'T do
this?" But he shakes it off when he arrives at 1408. He
enters and slams the door without hesitation.
Well, there's a bit of hesitation on the movie's part. Overall it's done very well, but there are moments when it doesn't know when too much is too much. On top of everything else, they cap this long sequence with a CGI animation of the gears in the door latch turning. Come on now, movie, really?
In the King short story, there's even more buildup...in fact, the text version is more buildup than payoff, with three-fifths of the narrative given to Mr. Olin talking up the creepiness of the room. This isn't really a complaint. Some days I load up this movie JUST to hear the Samuel L. Jackson part again. He's great at building the dread here.
I know what you're thinking at this point. After all that buildup, this had better be the scariest room in the entire friggin' world! The good news is that 1408 doesn't disappoint. It really is worthy of the hype. It is not a carnival funhouse of boos and jump-frights, like most other low-rent horror flicks would trade in. Its terrors are psychological, and tailored personally to each guest. The mere concept of it has a way of getting under your skin. This is truly not a place anybody would want to be.
At first it appears completely benign, if a bit hideously antiquated in decor. Mike whips out his pocket tape recorder and starts dictating a disapproving description of room 1408. "There's a sofa, a writing desk, an antique armoire, floral wallpaper. There's a stain on the carpet underneath a thrift-store painting of a sailboat lost at sea, done with predictably dull fashion by Currier and Ives." There are two more paintings on the wall, one of an old woman reading to a bunch of children and one of an old-timey fox hunt.
It starts with the clock radio. The radio just
suddenly comes to life with a glurgey number from The Carpenters,
"We've Only Just Begun" (chosen for irony, most
likely). Mike shuts the radio off, but it blares on again a few
seconds later. He again turns off the radio, then shouts into the
ceiling vent to anyone who might be staging this, "YOU'RE
GOING TO HAVE TO TRY HARDER THAN THAT!"
There's a growl on the other end. Is something....living in there? He'll have to tell Mr. Olin in the morning.
One thing that works to the film's benefit is that they refuse to define what's going on here. During Mike's long conversation with the manager, Mike tells him there's no such thing as ghosts and Olin's reply is "Who said anything about ghosts?" He really has no idea if 1408 is haunted, or a portal to hell, or if the room itself is alive and murderous. The movie itself never spells it out either. All Olin will say, and this had to be the one line they hired Samuel L. Jackson for, is: "it's an evil f****** room."
It's a bit warm in there, and opening the
window doesn't seem to help much. Mike uses the rotary phone to
dial the front desk. "Good evening sir, are you ready to
check out?" says the voice on the other end. "Why would
I check out? I just need somebody to check my thermostat,"
orders Mike. While he's waiting for the repairman, he turns out
the lights to examine the stains in the room with a blacklight
(Mike, you are a freak). But then he notices the sailboat
painting has gone crooked for some reason. And when he tries to
adjust it, he can't seem to get it perfect, like it's defying
Note: this is the movie's attempt at replicating the scene from the short story where Mike first sees 1408's front door and finds it to be "crooked and straight at the same time." It was impossible to recreate cinematically, but they tried.
When the repairman arrives, he refuses to step inside. Mike mocks him: "it's like six or seven feet." The repairman tells him, "I know what room this is, I ain't goin' in." He tells Mike to remove the cover and give the old tube of mercury inside a tap or two. Mike does so, and the thermostat works again, but the man splits before Mike can thank him.
The radio comes on again. This time, when Mike tries to shut it off, the digits on the display spin rapidly until they settle on 60 and start counting down from 59:59. Thaaaat's freaky! He unplugs the radio...but it keeps going! And he has to remember what Mr. Olin said about nobody lasting an hour. The clock was not a part of the short story, and the writers of the movie have to be complimented for coming up with it. Very King-like.
He still believes this is a stunt being pulled
by the hotel, but he admits it's "very effective." At
that moment, for some reason, he temporarily loses his hearing.
He leans out the open window and the streets of New York are
completely silent, despite a visible array of cars and people.
And while he's trying to figure THAT out, the window slams down
on his fingers.
After bandaging his hand, Mike has a furious call with the front desk. "FINE! YOU WIN! I'M CHECKING OUT! BUT IT'S NOT BECAUSE I'M SPOOKED, IT'S BECAUSE THIS STUPID HOTEL INJURED MY HAND! I'M GONNA SUE YOU SO HARD!" In response, the lady on the other end says something about his dry-cleaning being delayed. That's it, he's outta here. ...Of course, NOW the door refuses to open. It even eats his key!
Mike goes back to the open window and starts
yelling for help. A figure looking out a window on the opposite
building seems to notice him. Mike yells again, and the figure
seems to be paying attention. Mike waves his arms. The other
person also waves his arms.
Then Mike tries leaning from side to side, and the figure does the same. He realizes that because of the room's dark powers, he's somehow looking at a mirror version of himself from across the street. Then some crazy guy with a claw hammer runs up behind Mirror Mike and starts attacking that guy. Uh, wait a min........AAAAAAAAA!!
Mike doubles over backwards as Hammer Man takes
repeated swings at him. He finds himself cornered, but when he
blinks, he finds Hammer Man has vanished. It was a hallucination,
the first of many. They put this scene in the trailer, as well as
all the TV ads, and it just came across as goofy there. It's
actually kind of startling in proper context.
Hammer Man appears one more time later in the movie (and again in one of the paintings), and the meaning behind him is never revealed. But that's a good thing -- no explanation would satisfy. All you need to know is that as long as Mike is in the room, he's going to keep seeing Hammer Man out of nowhere every now and then, for the sake of his own torture and no other reason.
Mike is treated to a lot of hallucinations from this point. He sometimes sees the apparitions of the room's past victims as they climb out the window, but the visions he mainly gets are those that call attention to his own faults. He's shown his father, alone and abandoned in a nursing home. Pop turns to Mike and says "As you are, I was. And as I am...you will be." The moral is little too on the nose, but when Mike first got this vision I thought he was seeing himself as an old man, still stuck in the room. That would've been far scarier than this.
At this point, Mike finally believes in the supernatural, and he doesn't like it. He has to get out of here, by any means necessary, and at this stage he's desperate enough to try the window. Not in the same manner as everyone else, though. He takes a look at the fire escape plan posted on the door and makes a note of where the nearest adjacent room is. Then he carefully climbs out the window, positions himself precariously on the thin ledge, and starts edging himself to the next window one inch at a time.
Close and closer he goes....where is that window anyway? Shouldn't he have reached it by now? Then his foot stumbles, the camera pulls back and you see the actual wall he's been leaning against:
One common complaint I hear from people who don't like this movie is that there don't seem to be any rules here. Can this room just do anything? I don't see it as that much of an issue. The unknown is the essence of horror, and the fact that you don't know how this stuff is happening works to its benefit, I think. Bottom line, Mike never really "left" the room and now he's in a far worse position than before.
He manages to climb back up and inch his way back, but he nearly topples again when one of the apparitions dives out the window and startles him. And then the windowsill tries to bite his hand again! Mike manages to pull himself back inside before it can chomp, but he then notices the floorplan on the door has changed. Now all the other rooms are black except for 1408. And after a clash of thunder, he turns around to find all the windows bricked up. "BURN ME ALIVE" is written on one of the walls for some reason.
Mike has another idea. He opens his laptop,
boots up whatever the 2007 version of Zoom was and manages to
start a video chat with his wife. ....Wait, his WIFE? Yes, Mike
has a wife -- and the fact that you don't learn she exists until
the middle of the film suggests how well his marriage is going.
It's entirely Mike's fault...after a series of arguments, he
ghosted her and moved clear across the country. You get the idea
that Mike has a history of abandoning people and that maybe he
belongs in here. "I haven't talked to you in a year, and
suddenly you pop up in a box on my computer," Lily says
coldly. She is now his only hope.
Some people have balked at this moment, complaining that according to the rules that have been established, Mike shouldn't be able to leap over 1408's powers and contact anyone like this. There are two possibilities: one, the room has never seen a computer before (given the time between its last tenant, entirely possible). Two, this is a trap the room is setting for later. That much is true.
But right now the room is just mad that Mike managed to do this and sets off the sprinkler directly above his head. This shorts out the laptop and cuts his conversation. He did manage to tell Lily his location before then; it's about all he can do.
Mike is subjected to more visions. As far as antagonizing him is concerned, he has an easy button, which 1408 presses without mercy: a dead daughter. Seems he lost his litle girl a couple years ago to an unspecified disease, and this is the main reason he is so bitter and cynical today. It's the reason he's so hostile and snotty toward those with supernatural beliefs -- his attitude is, if anything is out there, why couldn't it have helped his daughter? It's also suggested this is the reason he abandoned all his loved ones to stew in his own funk in a California shack.
Wait, NO! Ick! Not the VENT! Don't go in there! Don't do it, Mike! Nothing else has worked -- what makes you think this will? And did you forget about the MONSTER? There's a monster in there! I can only watch through my fingers.
Mike peers down a grate. He sees the next room! He made it to the next room! And below him is a woman being berated by an angry jerk. .....Oh, it's Lily and this is another of his flashbacks. He crawls ahead to the next grate, but below that one is another vision of him yelling at his father. Again, Mike isn't going anywhere the room doesn't want him to go....and unfortunately at this point they show the monster. It really should have been kept offscreen or in the shadows -- nothing can possibly match what we've built up in our minds.
So who guessed "old man wearing glasses"? Is that scary? You tell me. But it's an old man with glasses that ROARS! That's a little scary.
One of Mike's weirdest visions happens when he
opens the mini-bar and sees a 1408-conjured version of Mr. Olin
there. (So we're clear: it's not actually Olin.) "WHAT DO
YOU WANT FROM ME?" Mike screams into the fridge.
"What do YOU want, Mr. Enslin? You sought this room."
"IT WAS A JOB, IT'S WHAT I DO, I'M A WRITER."
"Oh, that's right, you don't believe in anything. You enjoy shattering people's hopes."
"THAT'S BULL****!!!" Mike attacks the mini-bar in a rage and tears it to pieces, in an absurd moment that somebody already beat you to make memes from.
Immediately after, Mike is shown a vision
displaying exactly what Fake-Olin means. After visiting their
dying daughter in the hospital, Mike is furious at Lily for
telling her there's an afterlife. "YOU'RE FILLING HER HEAD
WITH THOSE STORIES ABOUT CLOUDS AND NIRVANA AND ALL THAT
****!!" he screams as he throws a table over. Lily sobs:
"But she liked them." "I'm gonna get some
cigarettes," Mike growls as he slams the door.
Present Mike hangs his head in shame. He couldn't feel worse. But the room is certainly going to try.
There's a problem with the thermostat again. The room has turned into a freezer and there's frost hanging over all the fixtures. Mike is huddled in blankets over a makeshift fire, trying to keep warm. He's officially given up his escape plan and resigned himself to doom. That is, until Lily's voice comes in over his laptop.
There's good news: Lily came through! But there's bad news that negates the good news: "Are you sure you're in 1408? The cops went into that room...there was nobody in there." Now Mike knows he is truly beyond hope. But it's about to get even worse than that.
Mike hears his own voice coming from the speaker: "I swear this is where I am! You have to come and get me!" From the video, it looks like he's talking to Lily, yet he's not. "Listen, don't talk to anyone! Come directly up to the thirteenth floor and go to 1408! You have to get me out of here!" Real Mike is screaming at the laptop "NO!! IT'S A TRAP!! DON'T COME HERE!!" Lily listens intently to the fake Mike and says she's coming as soon as she can. Fake Mike winks at Real Mike with an evil grin before cutting the video feed.
Suddenly...Wind! Earthquakes! Explosions! The room is tearing itself apart! And the paintings....the paintings are changing! The dogs in the fox hunt picture are now attacking their owners! And the seas are getting choppier in the sailboat painting....right before the wall bursts open and a torrent of floodwaters engulfs Mike!
The paintings change in the short story, but their evil forms have been softened a bit so they would get a PG-13 sticker. Most notable is the painted woman who, if King had his way, was supposed to be "displaying a sinster toothy grin so wide it creeps up half her face, while squeezing her breasts so that blood drips dowm from the nipples." Yeah.
Mike is in the middle of a raging sea with nothing to cling to! The waves overtake him....down he sinks.....
Mike wakes up. He's laying flat on his back at a California beach. A lifeguard asks him, "Hey, you all right, buddy?" This movie started out with Mike surfing on that same beach, wiping out, and nearly drowning. Was everything after that a DREAM? How annoying.
But it works out well for Mike, who is no longer dying in a freaky haunted hotel, and has a second chance to fix up his life. He visits his father in the nursing home. He reunites with Lily and takes her out on a date (but she isn't ready to forgive him yet). She does, however, offer him encouragement. "How about, instead of another phony tourist book, you write about our daughter's life?"
He doesn't quite take that suggestion, but he
decides to twist his experience in 1408 into a secretly
autobiographical horror thriller. He describes the plot to his
publisher, who loves it. He spends the next few days banging out
his new novel as quickly as possible, then rushes to the post
office to mail the first draft.
The clerk at the desk tells him "sorry, we're closed." In the middle of the day? That's odd....then Mike notices the clerk bears an awfully familiar resemblance to the guy who got in his face in the lobby at the Dolphin. The other people in the post office turn around and stare at him...before they start smashing the place up with shovels and pickaxes.
They're revealing pieces of the room! There's
the carpet! And the "BURN ME ALIVE" graffiti! He didn't
dream 1408....he dreamed this! The entire last week of
his life was ANOTHER HALLUCINATION! And according to the
countdown clock, it's only been a few minutes!
This is absolutely brilliant because not only does it play a cruel joke on Mike, it plays the same prank on the audience as well. Mike "wakes up" on the beach over an hour into the film...the story could plausibly be winding down at that point. (Sharp-eyed viewers may notice the recurring presence of the number 1408 in the background of these scenes and smile to themselves.) This also means for Mike that even if he does manage to escape, he can never be certain that he actually did. 1408 is yanking every last bit of hope out of him, and stomping on it for good measure.
And the reset wasn't part of the short story. It really should've been.
Believe it or not, this is NOT the worst thing the room does to Mike. It's about to play its trump card next.
Yes, it's her.
Mike's daughter, in person, says something about being cold while walking toward him slowly, her bare feet crunching on the ruined floor. He opens his arms and embraces her while weeping. "They're gonna take me away, Daddy, I don't wanna go," she says, cryptically. Then she turns into ash in his arms. Mike collapses on the charred, ruined floor at that point, a completely broken man with no more sarcastic remarks left in him. He silently watches the doom clock as it counts down its final ten seconds.
Nothing. In a blink, the room is completely back to normal. Mike gets up and has no idea what just happened. Was it really all a dream after all?
He gets his answer in a second when the clock radio does its thing again and starts over at 59:59.
The phone rings again, and it's the Sadist
Receptionist Lady Of Doom. "Your wife will be arriving in
just a few minutes, Mr. Enslin. We'll send her right up!"
Mike demands to know why the room just doesn't kill him and get
it over with. The phone replies, "All our guests enjoy the
courtesy of free will. You can choose to relive this hour over
and over again, or you can take advantage of our express delivery
Mike walks into the other room to find a noose hanging from the ceiling.
And it's only now, as he's waist-deep in it,
that he discovers what's truly going on here. He was never going
to drown, or fall off the ledge, or get his brains hammered out,
or anything. The room doesn't kill you. 1408's one and only goal
is to get you to kill YOURSELF -- and it has unlimited resources
devoted to making that happen.
That is far worse, and that is terrifying.
He returns to the phone to tell her that he is not, in fact, choosing the noose. The phone receiver melts in his hand while spouting gobbledegook, including the movie's most famous line: "Five! This is five! Ignore the sirens! Even if you leave this room, you can never leave this room! Eight! This is eight! We have killed your friends! Every friend is now dead!" This is the only part of the movie that quotes directly from the King story...the phone played a much larger role, and those lines are what it repeated over and over. It also repeated the line "You will be eaten by wolves on the Connecticut turnpike," whatever that meant, but in the movie this phrase only appears in the file Mr. Olin gives Mike.
Unfortunately, it's at this point that the movie decides it has to ham it up again, with several unnecessary hallicinations where Mike sees himself disappear in the mirror and sees his own gravestone next to his daughter's. How is that supposed to make him rush to do this?
Mike has a different idea. "I've lived the life of a selfish man," he admits, "but I don't have to die as one." If he's going to go, he's going to make sure he takes the room with him. He stuffs some cloth in the cognac bottle, lights it on fire and throws it into the bedroom as a molotov cocktail. The bottle explodes and lights half the room on fire.
Mike then kicks back in a chair and lights a
cigarette he had been saving "for the end of the
world." The sprinkler system turns on, but it doesn't make
much of a dent. Mike just laughs: "Not gonna work!"
It's kind of hard to believe that 1408 would have trouble with
this after everything we've seen, but then again, all other
disasters have been of its own making. Perhaps it can only repair
damage it does to itself?
Now think about what the graffiti said: "BURN ME ALIVE." It appeared right after Mike's first serious attempt to escape. Was the room TELLING Mike how to kill it? And if so...why?
Mike stands straight up, grabs an ashtray and
says: "The decor is tattered...and the staff surly....but on
the shiver scale, I award the Dolphin Hotel....TEN SKULLS!"
He hurls the ashtray through the window, and the sudden burst of
air creates a gigantic backdraft that engulfs 1408 in flames.
Lily, who got stuck in traffic, arrives on the street just in
time to see the window of the room her husband is staying in
explode. She stares in shock.
Mike, in the meantime, crawls under the couch to avoid the smoke, all the while laughing MANIACALLY. The air vent monster moans in pain. The paintings are eaten up in the flames. And finally, the 1408 label melts off the front door.
There are two endings to 1408. In the one the director intended, and the one that remained intact overseas, Mike dies with the room. Mr. Olin tells a sad Lily at his funeral that Mike actually made a heroic sacrifice and that she should be very proud of him. The final shot is Mike standing in the destroyed room as a ghost. His daughter calls to him and he fades off to meet her. There IS an afterlife, and they're finally together again.
Test audiences in the US didn't like that, so in the US version, Mike lives. Firefighters burst into the room and carry him away. He wakes up in his hospital bed to see Lily standing over him, and he asks if she's real. The scene is shot differently and with alternate lighting to imply it is.
Mike then gets to writing his new book. It's
easy, he says, because he already wrote it. He's moved back in
with Lily, into a new house...but she doesn't believe his story
happened at all, until she finds the scorched cassette recorder
in a box of items recovered from the room's ashes. Mike plays it,
and it's their daughter's voice. Now she does believe him. The
end. Not very satisfying, is it?
In the short story by King, Mike also escapes the room, in a similar fashion (rescued by firefighters). However, he has severe PTSD for the rest of his life over his short stay, and he finally understands the meaning of the phone's words, "Even if you leave this room, you can never leave this room." He may have escaped 1408, but he could never truly "leave" it in a mental sense.
The film took a more literal interpretation to this, and it makes the unintended soft US ending that much worse. How can you really be sure Mike isn't still in the room? When Mike died there was no doubt it was destroyed. Yeah, it sucks that he never gets to reunite with Lily, but when you have to choose between leaving Lily unresolved or leaving the room unresolved, the room is more important. I guess the important thing from a studio perspective is that this left the door open for a potential 1408 2 were the movie to become a hit. Said sequel would have been weak and unsatisfying -- you can't scare people the same exact way twice.
There is one final, unresolved part of both versions of the film that still nags at me though....
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