Anyone planning to to adapt a Stephen King story has quite the weight of expectation to match up to, but anyone willing to tackle a Stephen King ghost story must have balls the size of watermelons. After all, this is the man who wrote The Shining and whether the author cares to except it or not, Stanley Kubrick’s movie adaptation remains one of the greatest horror movies of all time – something that, even all these years later, would be a tough act to follow.
In 2007, Mikael Håfström, armed with a short story plucked from the pages from anthology novel Everything’s Eventual, attempted to do precisely that with 1408, a good old fashioned haunted hotel room story that aimed to give us some psychological chills instead of drowning us in buckets of offal. But while it was obviously never going to hold a candle to Kubrick’s titan of terror, could 1408 have a ghost of a chance to insert itself in the upper echelons of King adaptations?
Professional cynic Mike Enslin, once a promising novelist, now makes a living channeling every inch of skepticism he has into writing niche books about rating various so-called haunted destinations that drip with sarcasm. A profound disbeliever in anything supernatural, the bitter author one day gets wind of the infamous room 1408 that’s located in the Dolphin Hotel in New York from an anonymous postcard and being the sort of guy who would take such a thing as a challenge, he gets his publishers to book him a night’s stay.
Upon arriving, he’s met by hotel manager Gerald Olin who immediately sternly demands that Enslin changes his mind, but a lengthy description of some of the damage the titular room has done to those who has stayed within its walls. Bottom line? This isn’t mere ghosts we’re talking about and to quote Olin himself “It’s an evil, fucking room.”.
Still undeterred, Enslin settles down in the noticeably unassuming room and immediately starts to unleash his particular brand of nihilistic sarcasm into his tape recorder, but soon he starts to notice weird stuff happening – the radio keeps coming on it’s own, the window slams shut on his fingers and the water temperature in the bathroom fluctuates dangerously – but while this would be enough to knock down the hotel’s rating by a star or two, it’s hardly proof that the room is trying to kill him… And then the room tries to kill him.
Soon reality takes a header out the window and if Enslin isn’t careful, he’ll be next as 1408 tightens the screws and plays on the memories of his dead daughter to assault him with bizarre hallucinations and suicidal tendencies. But is any of it actually real? Couldn’t Enslin have been drugged, or is even experiencing some sort of psychotic break rather than the explanation being a malevolent room trying to punch his ticket? Whatever it is, it should make quite the Chapter in his next book – should he survive, that is.
Props really do have to be given to the filmmakers here for trying something do stripped back yet still so ambitious, after all 1408 was made in 2007, years before the current fad of “elevated” horror made such introspective genre pics the norm, but while such movies as The Lighthouse or Hereditary attacked such things with almost overwhelming subtlety, Håfström’s movie is still very much a product of it’s time.
First things first and let’s see what works. Straight out of the blocks, while other actors do get a look in, this is practically a one man show and thankfully John Cusack is up to the task as the vast majority of the movie is him squaring up to to his surroundings (often literally) and desperately trying to not go as notty as squirral shit as the room entices him to top himself. Alternating between smug overconfidence blundering rage, overwhelming fear and devastating grief, Cusack keeps things grounded as best he can, even when time and space utterly unravels beneath his feet and he does good work making what could easily be an unlikable prick surprisingly empathetic. Elsewhere, Samuel L. Jackson pops up as the hotel manager and is obviously relishing getting to sink his teeth into some juicy exposition as he fills Enslin (and us) in on the room’s impressive and varied bodycount (causing someone to drown in chicken soup is a new one on me). Nearly ten years later, Cusack and Jackson reteamed for another stab at King with the hideously inferior Cell and while 1408 has it’s issues, its certainly better that a vast number of attempts at King’s work.
However, despite a genuinely tense build up (again, mostly thanks to Jackson’s spirited monologuing), the movie struggles to maintain any of it once the movie reaches the halfway point. Now, that’s not to say that 1408 isn’t imaginative or even badly made – far from it – it’s just that it seems to be terrified of boring an audience weaned on gory horror remakes and over compensates by going into some fairly wild places. Enslin has to run the gauntlet of hallucinations, spirit sightings and general weird shit, some of which are fairly creepy – at one point Mike signals to a man in the apartment across the street only to find that it’s a ghostly version of himself and another moment sees him balancing on a ledge with no other windows to escape to except his own – but most are just trippy. In fact sometimes the movie gets too out-there for it’s own good and an audacious attempt at a twist thirty minutes before the end unfortunately isn’t fooling anybody. The main problem, however, is that while it scores frequently at being tense, eerie and out and out odd, 1408 is never particularly scary at any point and while the room’s mental assault is certainly disorienting, it doesn’t particulary feel like it would drive a man to suicide and Enslin’s final solution to beating the room is weirdly easy.
With all that being said, 1408 is still a decent entry into the King cannon with its well-meaning attempt to visualise the author’s distinctly tough to pin down imagination mostly working well. It’s just a shame that in all its attempts to dazzle, it sometimes fails to read the room…