By Jonathan Wojcik
ENTRY 28: 1408
When we reviewed In the Tall Grass, I said it wouldn't be our last Stephen King entry. When we looked at Await Further Instructions I said that it partially inspired this entire feature, along with another upcoming film. And just a couple pages back for Oculus, I said its monster had essentially a "big brother."
Adapted from a short King story of the same name, 1408 was irected by Mikael Hafstrom and released in 2007. It is, by far, one of my all-time favorite horror movies.
Our main character is Mike Enslin (John Cusack), an occult author famous for documenting and reviewing "real" haunting, though he's become cynically skeptical after years of failing to experience anything supernatural and moreso after having lost his daughter to a terminal illness some years prior, having since abandoned his wife Lily (Mary McCormack) to travel the country and dive deeper into his work.
Following an only marginally awkward book signing event, Enslin nearly wipes out surfing, which will be important later. That afternoon, he checks his post office box to find a strange poscard from a "Dolphin Hotel," advising him not to stay in Room 1408. He assumes this is a cry for his attention and finds the effort charming if nothing else, but when he calls to make a reservation, he's flatly refused. No matter what date he requests, even up to a year out, they tell him the room isn't available and ultimately hang up on him.
Intrigued, he researches the Dolphin to find an actual verifiable history of mysterious deaths and disappearances associated with 1408, and he finds a legal loophole - originally an anti-discrimination law - requiring that a hotel admit him any room that is technically unoccupied.
At the Dolphin, Enslin meets hotel manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) who does his best to talk Enslin out of his little ghost-hunt, as according to Olin, no one has ever lasted more than about an hour in the room. Enslin scoffs, still certain this is all some promotional "song and dance," until Olin makes clear he absolutely, earnestly does not want the author - or anyone - to set foot in the room ever again, at the very least because he isn't looking forward to "cleaning up the mess."
Olin reveals that most of the incidents didn't even make the news; that dozens of them were ruled "natural" deaths or kept private to protect the families. There has been a grand total of 56 deaths in 1408, ranging from a man who drowned himself to death with nothing but a bowl of soup to one who slashed open his own neck and only died half-way through an attempt to sew himself together again.
Enslin continues to ridicule what he thinks is a lot of superstitious dramatization, scoffing at the suggestion that a "phantom" or "spirit" has murdered so many people in the same room. Olin is quick to interject that he never said anything about a ghost, offering the film's most iconic line: "It's an evil fucking room."
Enslin will not be discouraged, not even when offered free access to the hotel's most private records of every hideous case. Olin even explains that the maids have to clean it in rotating shifts, keeping the door open at all times, and there was still an incident in which a maid blinded herself with scissors.
Even on his way to the room, Enslin passes by a tray of rotten food left on the floor, buzzing with flies as though ignored for hours; the first subtle oddity in the meticulously clean and ritzy establishment.
Enslin spends his first few minutes in the room mercilessly ridiculing the decor and even Olin into his tape recorder, complaining about the hideous wallpaper, a stain in the corner and the "predictably dull" paintings that include a schooner, an old woman reading to children and a recreation of "The Hunt."
The first peculiar incident comes when he's looking out the window and the room's alarm radio suddenly bursts to life, playing "We've Only Just Begun" by The Carpenters loudly enough that he sharply bumps his head on the surrounding frame. Shortly after, he notices that the toilet paper roll in the bathroom has already been replaced with a fresh one only minutes after using it to dry his hands.
Next, he finds that the thermostat is stuck keeping the room much too hot, and I absolutely love the snarky maintenance guy who refuses to set foot through the door, instructing the rude and foolhardy customer on how to fix it himself before hightailing it out of there.
Enslin tries to relax with a drink, but the radio beguns blaring the same song again at exactly the right moment to startle him a second time, causing him to spit out his whiskey. The radio's clock suddenly sets itself to an hour long countdown, and moments later, he experiences a strange tinnitus effect that dampens all other sound.
He leans out the window again, puzzling at how he can't even hear the busy city traffic below, and the window subsequently slams shut hard enough on his hand to leave him bleeding. When he goes to rinse it, scalding water surges from the sink and burns his flesh.
That damned song starts playing AGAIN, and he yanks the radio's cable out of the wall in a rage...which of course doesn't stop its countdown timer at all.
The phone rings, but when he answers, he can still hear a different phone ringing in another room, which has to be one of the pettiest annoyances the room will ever conjure; literally anything to make Enslin's stay a pain in the ass.
This time he's answered by a woman's voice in the most generic "room service" tone you can probably imagine. He begs for help, that he's been injured, that they "win" and that he needs to not only check out but get to a hospital as quickly as possible.
In response, the woman's voice apologizes to him that there will be a ten minute delay on his "sandwich."
He didn't order any sandwich, and the voice apologizes again, assuring him that he's more than welcome to substitute something else for his "french fries!" They even have macaroni salad and coleslaw!
His further agitation is met with a reminder that they'll have his dry cleaning ready for him in the morning, and he finally loses his temper, calling the poor lady a "bitch" and an "idiot" as he threatens to sue. At long last she actually acknowledges his words, but only to tell him sternly that she won't tolerate being spoken to in such a tone. We all know, of course, that she's not a woman or even a human at all.
She offers to put him in touch with the manager, but of course, leaves him on hold until the phone line finally cuts out. Classic.
Finally panicking, he gathers his possessions and tries to head out the door...but it's locked. Locked from the other side, as if the doorknob has been reversed when he wasn't looking. When he tries the key, it breaks off and gets sucked inside the keyhole. When he rattles the knob again, it too breaks off.
If these sound like almost cartoon slapstick to read about, I can assure you, the timing is even more comedic to actually watch. There's a genuinely frightening tension to Enslin's suffering of course, but from a Trickster God sort of angle, the room's capers are infectiously wicked.
One of the truly eeriest moments, on the other hand, comes when he spots someone through a window across the street, and tries to get the other man's attention...
It becomes obvious to Enslin in seconds that the distant man is mindlessly copying his own actions, like a mirror, and will likely not be calling for help.
He subsequently sees a crazed woman with a hammer sneaking up on this man, who now has his own face, and he turns around in the nick of time to dodge the same woman in his own room before she's seemingly gone again, in the blink of an eye.
Next, he tries throwing a lamp out of his window into the traffic below, hoping to get any attention at all...but the lamp flat-out vanishes on its way down. He then hears a voice calling to him, that of his own dead daughter, and as he searches for its source, it so happens we can see that same damn lamp lying on the floor inside the room. Hilarious.
Still logging the events into his tape recorder, he beliefs he has an epiphany that he must have been drugged when he shared a drink with Olin, that this is all a deeply sadistic prank involving some kind of hallucinogen...but even that can't account for the television suddenly playing such a clear, vivid video of a happy moment with his daughter. And for just a split second, she looks into the camera as if she can see into the rooom before the screen goes black.
Now the room begins to replay a series of past guests, like flickering holograms, leaping out the window to their death, as if to show Enslin one way he can escape.
He ignores these, but can now hear a baby wailing in a neighboring room - a truly CLASSIC hotel annoyance! - but realizes perhaps the parents can hear him in turn. He tries beating on the wall and shouting for help, but the child's cries grow only louder and louder, impossibly louder, its sobs multiplying and echoing until Enslin is clutching his head in agony. He hurls a chair against the wall with all his might, but the chair shatters without leaving so much as a dent.
The crying stops, but he hears something new from the bathroom; the voice of his elderly father. The hotel bathroom has become that of a rest home, his poor lonely father begging to know where he is. He barely seems to recognize Enslin, except to simply tell him "as you were, I was. As I am, you will be."
He wonders if he's simply dreaming, wonders how he can snap himself out of it, when he finds that the wall of the room - where he threw the chair - is now oozing with thin, dark blood, emitting a heavy breathing and soft, painful groaning.
He rather foolishly considers escaping out the window, inching along a narrow concrete rim to reach the neighboring room.
Naturally, no matter how many steps he takes...he doesn't find another window. The wall keeps going, on and on into the darkness, the windows of 1408 alone in an infinite expanse of brick. When he makes it back, another afterimage of a past suicide is climbing out, startling him enough that he barely catches himself from falling.
And as he hauls himself back up, the window BEGINS to close, just slowly enough that he barely, barely makes it back inside.
Once he does, he notices that even the hotel map has changed, displaying the room surrounded in empty blackness. He looks out the door's peephole, but only sees a brick wall. He turns back around to the window he just came through, and there's more brick. He returns to the bedroom, and there's no window at all. He seems like he remembers something, and rewinds his voice recorder back to his arrival. Amongst his original criticisms of the room, he hears his own voice complaining that there isn't any window in the bedroom.
Enslin tries to return to the other room, but it becomes a vision of his sick daughter in her hospital bed from long ago. He hears her voice calling for him once more when the lights burn out, and when they come back on, he finally realizes he's also very cold; that the thermostat is now stuck on freezing. Very nice touch, room!
vFor the first time, he considers trying his laptop and connecting to the wi-fi. He tries to skype with his wife, who hasn't seen or heard from him in quite some time, but just as he's giving her his current whereabouts and imploring her to call the police, the room's fire sprinkles activate and short out the computer. At every turn, 1408 waits until the worst possible moment.
Mikey's next desperate move is to escape out of the air vents, finding a claustrophobic maze of steaming, roach-infested tunnels that don't make a whole lot of sense for the building. He can once again hear the crying infant and follows the sound until he can see into the neighboring room...but by the time the mother is arguing a man named "Mike," he realizes this is another vision from the past, and his wife eerily looks directly at him through the vent before he retreats.
Searching further, he finds a vent that shows him a city park, where he had his last nasty argument with his father before the old man's dementia landed him in a home. His father had tried to talk sense into him that he should stay with his spouse, since she's also mourning their daughter and needs him now more than ever. As the past Enslin storms off, his father also looks directly towards the current Enslin, and one wonders if either person really had gazed up at something all that time ago, never knowing why.
The vents go on and on until the path is blocked by a filthy, dessicated old corpse. Of course this begins moving and pursuing him, a little cheesy, but for an animate corpse it's fairly unsettling; a jerky, crawling mummy with thickly dust-caked glasses. It chases our man right back into his original room, and in defeat, he decides he could at least go for a nice drink.
Inside the refrigerator is nothing but a window to the Hotel office, where manager Olin begins arguing with the author about spirituality and faith, questioning why he took the loss of his daughter as an excuse to dunk on belief in the supernatural. This becomes (intentionally) one of the absolute peak funniet moments in the film, when the audience is gifted the sight of how this really looks when he completely loses his cool, and it can truly only be appreciated as a clip:
My god, the snarls. The "YOU LITTLE" worked into his frothing. This scene is a work of art.
After more miserable visions of his past callousness towards his family, he finds the room is now cold enough for the moisture of the sprinklers to build up a layer of thick frost, and he starts a little campfire with the hotel record books he was given as he swigs down more whiskey.
He should know better by now when it seems as if his laptop is working again. It automatically starts up another call with his wife, who tells him that she already sent the police...and they're in room 1408, finding no trace of his presence or anything else unusual. She asks if she should meet him there, and he realizes she could only find herself trapped in the same psychological hell.
He pleads with her not to come...but that isn't what the app actually streams. He watches helpless as his own skype feed instead begs her to come as quickly as possible, skip speaking to any staff and come straight up to the room...and as she ends the call, promising she'll be there soon, his digital doppelganger fucking winks.
Now the icy room begins to shudder and crack, ripping itself apart. The paintings begin to change into more grotesque scenes that even animate, and the painting with the schooner begins to fill the room with seawater. Yeah, WHO'S PREDICTABLY DULL NOW, MIKEY???
...but wait a minute...why seawater now? Didn't we see something about the ocean already?
Suddenly, Enslin finds himself coming to on the same beach where he'd wiped out at the very beginning of the film. He fades in and out of consciousness as a life guard approaches, and soon, his wife is visiting him in a hospital bed. Of COURSE! It was all just a crazy-ass dream!
It was, nonetheless, the most terrifying and vivid nightmare he had ever experienced, every detail fresh in his mind, including the regrets and mistakes it had shown him from throughout his life. He's come out of the ordeal a changed man, and spends the following days reconnecting with his wife.
Strangely however, he eventually receives the exact same set of junk mail from the opening scenes, even the same cheesy birthday cards, minus the Dolphin Hotel postcard. Disturbed, he decides to research the hotel again, and now can find no record of its existence. He can find news articles on almost the same victims, but not one of them died in a hotel room.
Enslin rediscovers his passion for writing, pouring his nightmarish vision, the strange real-world coincidences and its impact on his personal relationships into a tell-all autobiographical horror story combo deal. It is a sensation and financial goldmine almost overnight, he makes amends with his father, and he's back on track to fix his marriage.
...Then one day, he needs to mail a package, and the post office suddenly informs him that they're closed for remodeling. Huh? He's already inside! How can they be remodeling?!
In a whirlwind of activity, workers demolish the walls of the post office, smash the equipment, rip up the carpet and tear down the ceilings, transforming the entire building before Enslin's eyes, and before he can escape again.
Oh my god. He still has the toothpick in his mouth from when he walked into the post office. IT WASN'T. FAKE. The fucking room LET HIM GO FOR AN ENTIRE YEAR AND PULLED HIM BACK THROUGH FUCKING TIME FOR NO REASON, AT ALL, EXCEPT TO BE A SHITHEAD.
The spitefulness is UNREAL, and it's STILL about to get worse. Worse than you can even imagine. The room is in the utter shambles you would expect from an entire year of rotting and moldering, all except for one perfectly pristine, brand new white door.
"Open it" says Enslin, bitterly, as if impatient to see where this is going already.
There is nothing outside of the door but vast, infinite blackness.
...Until he turns around, and now a vivid, perfect vision of his daughter is in the room with him. He knows this can't be real, begging the room not to do this to him, but as she pleads to go home with him, he caves. He takes her in his arms, sobbing, apologizing for everything, still promising everything is going to be okay as she goes suddenly limp in his arms.
You think this is the most vindictive, most heartless the room could ever possibly get.
I KNOW it's dark. I KNOW it's sad. I KNOW it's cruel. But how can at least part of you not die wheezing at the ultimate sick, twisted punchline of his daughter exploding, in a fountain of ashes, as that fucking radio plays that FUCKING song again. JESUS. This is a moment that "ruined" this movie for reviewers on the basis that it was completely over-the-top ridiculous, as if that's not the entire point and entire appeal, and I don't mean in a tired "so bad it's good" way.
Enslin has barely begun dusting dead daughter doppelganger off his jacket when the radio countdown appears to finally, finally approach zero, the end of that single hour nobody has ever survived, and I think you know what happens. I think you know that the clock simply starts over again. Room 1408 has absolutely nothing resembling a face, but as those digital numbers rewind back to sixty minutes, it exudes the same energy as a slowly spreading, curling grin.
Back in a fully restored room, Enslin sits in a chair and stares out the window, numb and defeated. The phone rings again, and he asks why it hasn't just killed him yet. It's the "room service girl" again, essentially the room's personal avatar, this time almost holding a cognizant conversation with her victim as she explains he has the free will to do as he pleases, and could "take advantage of our express checkout system!" as he notices a noose now hanging from the ceiling. Unimpressed, he only goes for his whiskey again as he finds the same noose hanging in every room he turns to.
Picking up the phone again, he's asked if he's ready to check out yet, and he tells her no. "Not your way." It's then that she cheerfully informs him that his wife just called, and they'll be sending her straight up! He tells the room it can't have her, and that he's done arguing with it.
He puts the phone down, and the plastic receiver slowly melts as the slowly warping voice offers a surreal monologue:
This scene and dialog is lifted straight from the short story, and of every moment in either version, it feels the most like King had to have seen it in an actual dream. It feels like the kind of thing I used to dream about, something cryptically weird in an almost innocuous but still disturbing and impossible way.
His experiences thus far convince Enslin that no matter what the room throws at him, anything he chooses to do seems to be very real, especially anything that might be lethal; such as lighting the whole place on fire. He begins to "review" his experience as the flames rise higher around him, snidely awarding the Dolphin Hotel his best possible rating: ten out of ten skulls!
Now, this is where the film's ending actually varies, and not in the usual sense of a film having hasty cuts or reshoots. The original short story had a more ambiguous one, while four different endings were shot for the film. In the ending ultimate picked for its theatrical release, Olin finds Lily at Mike's funeral and attempts to give her his belongings, including his tape recorder, but she declines. Later, in his car, Olin listens to the miraculously functional tape, even smiling at the curmudgeony author's snarky reviews and insults, but can unmistakably hear the sound of a little girl's voice.
After being briefly jump-scared by a vision of a burned Enslin, Olin can see a man running off with a little girl in his rear view window, and in the very final moments, we see a vision of a contented Enslin following his daughter's voice out of the charred Hotel, fading through the wall. In this version, the room has been successfully destroyed and will never be reopened.
In another ending, Mike survives, and Olin presents the couple with the tape recorder, both of them hearing the impossible recording of their "ghost" daughter. Another alternate ending has only Mike able to hear this sound, keeping the secret to himself.
In the fourth and, darkest ending, the widowed Lily meets up with Mike's publisher, Sam, to go over the recovered memoirs of his final hour in the room, but as they begin to read the transcript of his recordings... the door to the office slams shut on its own. Is this the first time any "first-hand" record of the room's activities have escaped its confines? And if so, is that a vehicle through which it can "travel?"
MONSTER ANALYSIS: ROOM 1408
Hahahahaha. HAHAHAHA. You thought Lasser Glass was a gargantuan dickbag, but it's practically the portable "home game" version of this wallpapered C-word, the Gameboy Color to 1408's Nintendo 64. They are not, however, interchangeable in the nature of their powers or their character. Lasser exclusively "fooled the senses" to hide danger, tricking victims into offing themselves or one another by disguising their true surroundings. This stinker, on the other hand, appears to have godlike command over the physical reality and passage of time within its walls, which it uses exclusively to torture its guests until they knowingly choose the escape of death. And while Lasser reeks of a cold, hateful malevolence with an ambiguous undertone of amusement, Roomie is indisputably having an absolute BLAST.
I spoke fairly early of this narrative's "slapstick" pacing, and later of how many critics assume it was an accident. No, this is not a "comedy film," yes, it is meant to be (and is often successfully) scary, and yes, its villain is also intentionally "funny." Despite some narrow-minded reactions to the contrary, these things can all very easily coexist in the same work, something people seem to have no difficulty accepting when it's a villain like Freddy Krueger or the Batman Clown.
1408's antics follow practically all the same gag timing as Bugs Bunny in his merciless torment of Elmer Fudd, and the same classic toon-law that physics can be broken whenever it is funny enough. Minute after minute, Enslin is given some sliver of hope, some promise of fleeting peace and quiet, only for the rug to be pulled out from under him at only the rudest moment and in the most insulting way the room can possibly come up. It is monstrously sadistic when it has his daughter die in his arms, yes, but so simplistically juvenile when it blows her up in his face that even he's left in an almost incredulous "are you serious right now" sort of daze than anything else.
And that juvenile boredom, coupled with nigh-omnipotence and an absolute absence of all compassion, is a far more terrifying combination than only one or two of these elements together, all the moreso from something taking a form as inhuman and as insidious as a tacky hotel room. You aren't aware of this monster until you're already inside this monster, like a pitcher plant or an antlion adapted especially for a diet of human despair. There's actually an additional "Dante's Inferno" theme to the film as each phase mirrors one of hell's nine levels, and as interesting as that is I still can't bring myself to care about it as much as I care about the room's almost lovably deranged personality, so gleeful in its fiendishness that it feels darkly easier to laugh along with its more childish sensibilities than its little wall-mirror counterpart. Once the mayhem begins, it never lets up for a full minute until the epic troll of that time-jump fake-out.
I think it's also easier to "like" 1408 more than some of our other reality-warpers in part because it's anchored to one location and the only known victims have been adults. Like Silent Hill, we only really see it preying on a victim's "guilt," punishing Enslin for his heartlessness towards his spouse and his father. We never even hear of any victims who aren't adults who checked in all alone, notably no mention of the room ever harming a child or anyone who brought a child. Does it actually have a conscience? Is it actually "disgusted" by Enslin's treatment of others? Was it agitated even further when he was rude to Olin and later to its customer service 'sona?! It still treats its known guest far, far worse than any of that deserves, but I can't help wondering if you can be a nice enough person that it doesn't care.
Olin doesn't even state that EVERY guest has died or mutilated themselves; he says that "no one lasts an hour," but he only says there have been four actual deaths (and the unfortunate maid) in the years he's worked there, and that it was only after the fourth suicide that his bosses agreed to shut down the room. There's no way only four people were ever checked in at all during his time as manager, right? It sounds possible that a whole lot of victims are actually let go with little more than a scare, and even Enslin might have still been able to leave after the first few "pranks." He didn't even try to leave after his hand was injured, but verbally abused "customer service" instead, and I kind of wonder if that wasn't his point of no return. After all, she's not going to tolerate being spoken to in that manner, and instead of an apology, he called her more names!
But wherever its hypothetical moral compass points, literally WHAT is this "Evil Fucking Room?" Some King fans posit that it's an example of an entity called a Thinny from The Stand, but they only align on a few broad points. Others suggest it's even the same sort of entity as IT, perhaps a juvenile limited to a smaller functional territory, but it doesn't behave like the fear-powered ur-predator either. The original short story suggests that the room is very much alive, with instances of a fleshy-soft floor, pulsating walls and wet, churning "pulse" that I do wish the film had kept. Personally, I think it might only be related to the aforementioned entities, at maximum, as much as an eel is related to a rosebush by way of being carbon-based material lifeforms. There's definitely some outer cosmic forces at work behind its existence, but whether it's an entity that came to occupy a hotel room, an entity our minds translate as such, or a hotel room that somehow became an entity is the real question.
All we really know, I think, is that Room 1408 is the horror monster version of this: