One of my favorite horror films of the past decade is 1408. It was released in the summer of 2007, my last summer working at a movie theater. My brother and I had to go see it and couldn’t stop talking about it for weeks. Not many movies grace my DVD shelf, but 1408 is one of the most recent films that I proudly own and I love to bring it out at least once every October.
Based on a short story by Stephen King, 1408 is about a fiercely haunted hotel room. Mike Enslin (John Cusack) is a writer who investigates supposedly haunted places and writes about them under cheesy titles like 10 Haunted Hotels. One day, he gets a mysterious postcard from the Dolphin Hotel in New York with the warning “Don’t go in 1408.” He takes the warning as a reader’s request and makes sure he can spend the night in the room. Mike has been to countless haunted hotels, houses, graveyards and whatnot without experiencing a thing, why should he be scared of some hotel room?
The Dolphin’s manager, Mr. Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), is a force to be reckoned with and makes a strong case for Mike to stay away. Though Mike has done research and knows about many gruesome suicides in 1408, Olin enlightens him about the equally disturbing natural deaths. The room has such a ghastly history that even Mike is a little surprised, but heeds no warning.
Inside room 1408, the evil that haunts it stays back just long enough for Mike to get complacent. Once the surprises start, they just keep coming and escalate quickly. Little tricks that Mike believes are Olin and his staff soon become indisputable, maddening horror. Among the frightful fun is a phantom hammer swinging maniac, a drastically changing thermostat, bleeding cracks in the wall and painful visions from Mike’s past. What comes through the fax machine always gives me the most heartbreaking creeps.
Mike has become one of my favorite horror film characters, partially because he runs the show so well and because I find him so easy to identify with. He is a disillusioned hack writer running from a painful past. His novel proves that he has talent, but he settles for this bogus gig writing about haunted places and traveling. His job sounds both like a dream and nightmare to me. What I love most about Mike is his high level of cynicism and snark that shields him from both the real and imaginary haunts he faces. When there is no denying the evil of 1408, his true nature is shown. Between his paranoia, futile escape attempts and painful sorrow, Mike reveals his vulnerability which becomes surprisingly refreshing and honest, for a hack writer.
I could go on all day about how much I love 1408. It’s gruesome without much gore, scary without relying on jumpy moments, and a one man show that stays fresh. The layers of terror that unfold get better and more intense throughout the film. At times, it is maddening and brings us along Mike’s ride so well that we experience his torturous journey. Best of all, it is full of surprises up to the very end.
“Do you know why I can stay in your spooky old room, Mr. Olin? Because I know that ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties… don’t exist. And even if they did, there’s no God to protect us from them, now is there?”