For about half the film, Mikael Håfström’s 1408, based on the Stephen King short story of the same name, is creepy and frightening. By then, the viewer has grown used to Mike Enslin’s (John Cusack) predicament, and the film has no other alternative than to fall into convention. That’s unfortunate, because if Håfström had been able to sustain the atmosphere of the first half throughout the film, it would rank among the best ghost films of all time. A lot can be said for a film with potential like that.
The story follows Enslin, an author of talent and drive in his youth, who has become a hack writer following the death of his daughter and the dissolution of his marriage. He spends his career these days visiting haunted sites and writing about them. However, he does not believe in ghosts, having never seen one. He is not a skeptic. He is a cynic. There is no doubt in his mind that ghosts do not exist. He has spent enough nights in supposedly haunted hotel rooms to be sure. But he is also not a debunker. What he writes is bunk. He uses the reputations of these haunted places to sell books and pay the bills, and it wouldn’t serve to write what he knows, the truth, that there are no such things as ghosts.
One day Enslin receives a postcard in the mail from the Dolphin Hotel in New York City. Whoever sent it has left him a simple message, “Don’t Enter 1408”. Enslin researches the Dolphin, and learns that multiple murders and suicides have taken place in room 1408. He has found the next haunted location to write about. But, unlike the other places he has been, the staff of the Dolphin is not eager in the least to have anyone stay in room 1408. After some wrangling, Enslin arrives at the hotel and faces down a last minute appeal by the hotel’s manager, played by Samuel L. Jackson, to not stay in 1408, and this is where the fun begins.
Needless to say, there would not be a film were room 1408 to be as devoid of paranormal activity as any other room Enslin has stayed in. It doesn’t take long for the ghostly parlor tricks to begin, and they are unsettling. Eventually the room establishes itself as a place Enslin should not have entered, and it actively repulses his attempts to leave. This room is not just messing with Enslin. There is a real possibility that it wants him dead.
One thing that’s unique about the room is that unlike other haunted tales such as The Haunting, there is no malevolent force trying to get into the room by pushing at doors or walls. There are no safe areas where a character can be secure, avoiding the ghostly calamities that take place just beyond the door. Whatever inhabits room 1408 is already there, and Enslin made the mistake of seeking it out. There were multiple obstacles in his way and multiple opportunities for Enslin to change his mind, but he refused. In that way, he is getting what he deserves, if anybody really deserves being tortured by an evil entity.
The haunting plays itself out in Enslin’s head in many ways. Is it hallucination? Has he been drugged? Is any of this real? The best parts of the haunting feel like an acid trip gone awry. There is nothing good about the experience, and it feels like it will last forever. The room tortures Enslin not just with what it shows him, but with the panic and despair he feels. But in film, that can only take a viewer so far.
Yes, we understand that Enslin is really being put through the wringer, but after awhile, the participatory nature of the film — what makes the horror work — is gone as things become more personalized to the past events in Enslin’s life. The room shows him the most painful moments of his life, playing on the regrets he surely feels at the direction things have gone, but that is his life, not ours. When the room kept things general, and tense, it was as disturbing for Enslin as for the audience. Eventually the film drifts into showy visuals and that’s it for the scary.
It’s not as if the movie is bad following the frightening parts. It’s just that, once the film no longer gives one their adrenaline fix, it loses quite a lot. There are two endings for 1408 floating around out there. One is happy, and was filmed after the original bombed with test audiences. One is a downer, but doesn’t feel like it was focus grouped to death. Take your pick, as they’re both on DVD.