Released in 2007
The haunted house is, arguably, one of the most successful tropes in the horror genre, perhaps due to an almost ubiquitous fear that our homes could shift from places of great safety to sites of our extreme vulnerability. The idea that what we most have to fear could be lurking in just the next room is one which has been exploited in horror literature and film for many years. We have seen the concept of the ‘evil house’, wherein the danger lurks in the very bricks and mortar surrounding us and the impact this has on the minds of those caught within, for example, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000). 1408, based on a Stephen King short story, locates the terror in an even smaller geographical space; a single hotel room in the centre of New York City.
Accompanying the viewer into this little section of Hell is Mike Enslin (John Cusack); the jaded, cynical, albeit relatively successful author of such titles as 10 Haunted Graveyards and 10 Haunted Lighthouses. For a man who so fervently denies any belief in ghosts, what these titles tell us is that Mike has certainly dedicated a vast portion of his life to searching for them, but has as yet been unsuccessful in his quest. In his dogged determination to investigate alleged hauntings wherever he can find them we see that, like the maverick FBI agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) from Chris Carter’s The X-Files (1993-2002), Mike truly does want to believe. As he says to his fans, ‘Nothing would make me happier than to witness a paranormal event’. Indeed, the reason for his desire to discover evidence of an after-life is slowly revealed as the film progresses and we witness the tragic events leading up to his acrimonious separation from his wife, Lily. While researching a new book, Mike hears about the legend of room 1408 in The Dolphin Hotel. To begin with the viewer cannot help but join him in his mild amusement when he first makes contact with the establishment to enquire about the room; only to be told, ‘That room is unavailable, sir’. ‘Wait a minute’, says Mike, ‘I didn’t tell you which date’. Stony silence ensues from the surly receptionist, then, ‘It’s unavailable’.
On the face of it, this is mere myth-building on the part of hotel staff, and holds all the faux terror of the fairground ghost train, with the audience being challenged to ‘roll up’ for what will inevitably be a fairly dull, uneventful experience. Indeed, this is how Mike sees it, as he calls his agent to pull some strings and get him booked in. However, he must still overcome the misgivings of the hotel manager, Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) who Mike must circumvent in order to secure one night in room 1408. Olin delivers his stock spooky lines with panache, “nobody’s ever lasted more than an hour [in that room]”; “I don’t want to clean up the mess”. At certain points Olin even seems to have slightly rattled Mike’s scepticism with his warnings.
We then begin to discover that room 1408 does indeed have a noteworthy history. Olin shows Mike a scrapbook documenting the room over the last 95 years. We learn that there have been 56 deaths in room 1408 since the hotel opened. 27 of these deaths were described as natural; the other’s... less so. If the first real tremors of trepidation begin to run through the viewer, Mike remains unimpressed, berating Olin for trying to scare him with tales of ‘ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties’. Not to be robbed of the final words in the exchange, however, Olin responds with utter seriousness, ‘I have never used the word “phantom”. It’s just an evil fucking room’.
It has to be said that Jackson and Cusack are unusually big names for 21st century horror cinema. Since so much of the film revolves around their performances, particularly around that of Cusack, that the investment in top actors was a wise decision on the part of the casting team. Too often in horror films we see good ideas ruined by frankly poor execution. For a horror film to work the actors need to make you empathize with their characters in order to make you care about the fact that they may at some point in the film face a grisly death. This is what we get in 1408. Cusack is phenomenal here; not only do we see the cynical, sarcastic side of Mike, which he portrays to the world as a kind of shield to keep people from getting too close, but over the course of the film we also see him as a man who has made a great many mistakes throughout his life and regrets them all deeply. He is also likeable, despite (or perhaps because of) all his flaws, and even more importantly, he is absolutely hilarious. Cusack delivers his lines with impeccable comic timing, and this is highlighted even more clearly in the scenes he shares with Jackson, who is similarly gifted at delivering this kind of deadpan humour. Even towards the end of the film, when things have spiralled well out of control, some of Cusack’s reactions and delivery had me laughing out loud. It is a testament to the actors’ abilities and the quality of the script that humour and horror are blended so well in this film, providing emotional contrast to the rather doom-laden plot.
Of course, when we finally see it, the room itself is actually rather... nice. A sentiment that is echoed by Mike as he stands in the doorway, peering in, ‘This is it? Where’s the bone chilling terror? Show me the rivers of blood’. It is spacious and well-lit; it has a mini-bar that Mike makes increasing use of throughout his time in the room; the pictures adorning the walls are bland, yet somehow comforting. All in all, somewhere I would not mind staying a night. I mean, sure, there are problems: a closer inspection with a UV light reveals some rather ominous bloodstains scattered throughout the room; the thermostat is broken making the space unbearably stuffy, which the hotel engineer refuses to enter the room in order to fix; and the radio alarm clock keeps switching itself on periodically (always, horrifically, playing The Carpenter’s ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’). Nevertheless, thinks Mike, ‘it does have its charms’. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this is where we spend the next horrendously uncomfortable hour or so of the film, trapped in a hotel room which grows less and less charming by the minute. Of course, by the time Mike has witnessed enough to persuade him that Olin might have been telling the truth it is too late and the room simply refuses to let him go. At this point, the clock radio portentously begins a slow 60 minute countdown.