1408 [2007]

From the seemingly inexhaustible pen of Stephen King, this little gem is likely to go down as a classic of its kind. The Director, Mikael Håfström, has already made a name for himself in the horror genre in his native Sweden with his 2004 offering ‘Drowning Ghost’, and his ability to command leading names such as John Cusack and Samuel L Jackson suggests the solid regard in which his work is held. 1408 shows that that regard is well deserved.

The tale begins, appropriately enough, on a dark and stormy night. Mike Enslin [John Cusack] is looking for yet another ‘haunted’ hotel to become one more chapter in a string of mystery books. Enslin is a writer who specialises in seeking out and debunking ghost stories. He is cynical and worldly-wise. There is always a rational reason behind apparently paranormal activity, and ghosts, poltergeists, phantoms, ghouls, vampires and so forth are superstitious nonsense. He has written many books proving his point.

The hotel, as usual, can be debunked and Enslin moves on for a spot of R&R involving his favourite sport, surfing. Tipped over by a wave, he nearly drowns, ending up coughing and spluttering on the beach. Undeterred, he heads for New York and his next target. The Dolphin Hotel is one of the City’s better class of such establishments, discreet, elegant and quietly trading at a very satisfactory occupancy rate of ninety percent. It has been doing so for ninety-five years, although it has been the scene of some very distressing incidents, all of which occurred in room number eight on the fourteenth floor. Room 1408.

Enslin seeks to book the room, but runs into a problem. The hotel will not accept his booking. They do not accept bookings for room 1408 [the numbers 1,4,0, and 8 add up to 13; coincidence?] Only the threat of legal action by his manic publisher [Tony Shaloub] forces them to accept him.

Arriving at the hotel, Enslin is met by the Manager, the urbane and slightly saturnine Mr. Olin [Samuel L Jackson], who fervently seeks to persuade him to take another room. Olin explains that fifty-eight deaths in total have occurred in room 1408 over its near century of existence, the first one within days of its opening. He cannot explain why; he is a manager, not a coroner. He offers Enslin a free upgrade to the penthouse, a bottle of $800 cognac, other inducements. Enslin is adamant. Olin’s urbanity wears thin; “You are a man who does not believe in anything but himself,” he grates. “Guilty as charged,” agrees Enslin airily. Reluctantly, Olin gives him the key and conducts him to the fourteenth floor, but only as far as the elevator door. “This is as far as I go,” says Olin grimly.

Room 1408 is palatial, as Enslin soon finds as he settles in. Nothing suspicious at all. He explores. All is quiet. He sits on the bed, sipping a cognac, dictating into his recorder. Suddenly, untouched, the clock-radio by the bed blares into raucous life, a 1970s hit by the Carpenters. Rattled but not ready to admit it, Enslin turns it off, but other things begin to happen. A picture of a sailing ship, once straight, is now crooked. An open window, stiff to open, slams down hard on his hand. The thermostat zooms up to 80 degrees of its own accord and will not budge. The radio comes on again, Enslin turns it off. It remains on. He yanks the plug out and the music stops but the digital display flickers, steadying at 60 minutes. And begins to count down.

No-one has survived for more than an hour in room 1408.

Desperate now, deserted by his armour of cynicism, Enslin tries to get out, but the door will not open. The key breaks in the lock, the knob comes away in his hand. He begins to see visions, but this is no random phantasmagoria. We see him with a woman and a thin, hollow-eyed girl of about ten. From next door comes the sound of a baby crying. He meets an elderly man in a wheel chair who tells him, chillingly, that “As you are, so was I. As I am so will you be.” Very soon we realise that these visions are a recapitulation of his past, of the death of his daughter, the ruin of his marriage, the estrangement of his father.

Brick walls appear outside the windows and the door. Enslin realises then that there is no escape. As the countdown of the red numbers on the clock continues closer to zero, the room becomes more and more chaotic. Visions come and go. Phantoms pass him by. The walls crack and sunder. The pictures on the wall change; what was a sailing ship on a calm sea becomes a storm-tossed wreck. In a panic he lashes out, throwing furniture around, beating the picture of the ship with a chair-leg until it smashes and the sea comes pouring into the room in a Dali-esque welter of water, furniture and phantoms. Enslin is washed away into the deeps, from which emerges to find himself back on the beach, still in his wetsuit. All goes dark.

He awakes in a hospital bed. It was all a dream, a nightmare induced by a near-death experience. His wife, Lily [Mary McCormack] is by his side, solicitous. He tells her of his nightmare and she laughs at his fears. They begin to reconcile. He meets his senile Father, who recognises him for the first time in years. Lily encourages him to write about his nightmare, which he does, penning his first great novel in years. The shell of cynicism into which he has withdrawn himself for so long begins to melt away. Then, as he rushes to send the manuscript off to his publisher, the world abruptly changes about him.

And only then does Enslin realise the horrific, inescapable truth.

There is more to 1408 than yet another clever horror story from a master of the macabre. There are themes running through it that bear thinking about more deeply, and this is a movie that merits more than one viewing. The unfolding narrative of Enslin’s earlier life hints at underlying currents of punishment and redemption, and of the existence of an overarching Will that has a Purpose of Its own. There are elements of supernatural revenge for the hubris and arrogance of disbelief, of retribution upon one who has turned his back on those who loved him, who has stolen and demeaned the beliefs of those who believe in something more than mere existence.

Mikael Håfström has put together an impressive movie, layering tension upon tension in a thrilling ride that takes the viewer ever deeper into a dark world that cannot be explained, only experienced. We can see how Power can exist in ways other than simplistic phenomena such as vampires and zombies. It exists, without a name, ever in shadows, waiting to tear down the proud and the arrogant. It lurks in many places, including room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel.

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