Judge Erich Asperschlager recommends you never bring a black light with you into a hotel room. Seriously.
"Eight dollars for beer nuts. This room really is evil."
1408 started as a few pages in the appendix of author Stephen King's non-fiction memoir/how-to On Writing, as an example of how stories change from draft to draft. King liked the start and finished the story, releasing it as part of his audio-only collection Blood and Smoke, then as one of the 14 short stories that made up 2002's Everything's Eventual. Released this past summer as a feature film directed by Mikael Håfström, starring John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson, it's now available on DVD, as a two-disc collector's edition with the theatrical version, a director's cut, a slew of extras, and five collectible Dolphin Hotel postcards. From a few pages of a writing exercise to more than four hours of material—that's quite a journey.
1408 works better than most of King's adaptations. The first half is a genuinely creepy ghost story. Though the last hour falters slightly as the material based on King's original story winds down and the filmmakers have to fill out the rest, 1408 redeems itself in the final act, with some interesting twists and turns.
Facts of the Case
Author Mike Enslin (John Cusack, Being John Malkovich) makes his living writing travel guides about places haunted by ghosts he doesn't believe in. After a poorly attended book signing and a minor surfing mishap—both of which establish Enslin as "washed up" (figuratively, in one case, literally, in the other)—he receives a mysterious postcard warning him to stay out of the titular room in New York City's Dolphin Hotel. Intrigued, he hops on a plane and heads back east. When he arrives at the Dolphin, planning to stay in room 1408, Mr. Olin (Samuel Jackson, The Incredibles), the hotel's manager pleads with the writer to change his mind: the room, which has claimed more than fifty victims (none of whom lasted more than an hour), has been unoccupied for twenty years. Enslin, unmoved, demands the room and Olin accompanies him to the proper floor, going no further than the open elevator doors. Enslin enters the room—and before too long finds out exactly why he was warned to stay out of 1408.
Michael Enslin is one of Stephen King's many author characters. Like Jack Torrance in The Shining—the book (and film) to which 1408 owes its greatest debt—Enslin is a writer and a drinker, trapped as much by past mistakes as by a haunted hotel. (It's not hard to see the Overlook Hotel's room 217, in which Jack and his son Danny have their closest encounters with the unknown, as an early version of the Dolphin's cursed suite.)
1408 starts out strong, introducing Enslin on a literal "dark and stormy night," as he drives to a so-called haunted hotel which (as he expects) ends up being no scarier than the smiling couple at the front desk. Early sequences do a good job establishing Enslin's job, and his life, as boring and unremarkable. While it's suggested his writing career began with a powerful, personal, novel, he's long-since traded whatever integrity he had for the easy money of books that feed off people's fascination about the possibility of life after death. He's cynical and self-centered, traits which become more apparent as we learn about the wife (Mary McCormack, For Your Consideration) he left in New York after the death of their daughter.
The scene between Enslin and Mr. Olin, which was a major part of King's story, is great fun to watch. Cusack and Jackson play well off each other, and hearing Jackson recount the room's bloody history is downright bone-chilling (though, let's face it, he could read lunch specials off the hotel's menu and I'd be just as enthralled). Everything leading up to Enslin actually entering the room establishes a feeling of mounting dread. The set-up is, unfortunately, so strong the film's eventual reveals can't help but disappoint.
The filmmakers deserve credit for building suspense early and keeping most of the movie's scares out of the gory territory of modern horror films. In fact, 1408 works best when it deals with the psychological—when we're not sure whether what Enslin sees is real or in his mind. It falls flat when they show too clearly what's going bump in the night. It's a lot scarier to see an alarm clock freak out and start playing the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" than it is to see blood pouring out of cracks in the walls. As has been true from Hitchcock to Jaws, what's scariest is not seeing what's about to kill you.
The biggest book-to-screen change is the addition of a backstory about Enslin's estranged wife and fatally ill daughter. While the premise treads conventional dramatic ground, it establishes motivation for Cusack's character and the psychological torture the room inflicts upon him. Not only are his memories used against him, they also let the horrors of his imprisonment in 1408 become a metaphor for Enslin being trapped by an inability to deal with his familial relationships.
The film's 5.1 surround mix uses a full range of directional sound to sell the creepy moments—going, at times, from near silence to ear-splitting noise. The scoring and effects vary by scene, enhancing the story and connecting the audience with Enslin's emotional plight. The video is clean, and easily handles all the shifts in tone, color, and light.
The main selling point of this two-disc set—as opposed to the single-disc release—is a director's cut of the film, which has an alternate (slightly darker) ending, and some added footage. This new cut is accompanied by a commentary, recorded by a couple writers and the director. Though there's a good amount of mutual admiration, the contributors pepper their conversation with anecdotes about casting, location, production, and the ideas and influences that went into writing the script (including the occasional reference to King's original story).
The bonus features are spread across both discs. The first disc, which has the theatrical version of the film (and is identical to the single-disc release) includes the webisodes "John Cusack on 1408" and "Inside Room 1408" (neither of which is much longer than two minutes), and the theatrical trailer. The second disc, besides having the director's cut and the accompanying commentary, has (relatively) more substantial features, including deleted scenes with optional commentary and "The Secrets of 1408," a 25-minute documentary split into four parts: "The Characters," "The Director," "The Physical Effects," and "The Production Design." "Secrets" has some interesting information, but a lot of it is retread from what's covered in the commentary.
Releasing two DVD versions of this film is pretty fishy: the single-disc release is likely enough for casual fans, but it lacks any real extras; the two-disc version has some meaty extras, but carries the baggage of an anemic first disc. Did I mention the difference in price between the two versions is less than five bucks? It sure seems like this release could have been handled differently, perhaps with the director's cut getting its own single-disc release, and the theatrical release getting a few more features. Add in the Blockbuster-exclusive version with two alternate endings, and it looks like the scariest thing about 1408 is a blatant DVD money-grab.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
No doubt there are a lot of people who like a good scare, but wouldn't set foot in a theater showing a film like Hostel or Saw. For those with weaker stomachs (myself included), a movie like 1408 is a good way to get your scare on. Though it walks some pretty familiar horror plot paths, there's enough emphasis on psychological suspense to forgive the cheaper scares. It also does a good job of solving the problem of being basically about a man in a room, adding a significant twist part way through the movie that provides a nice breather, despite the predictability of what follows.
'Tis the season for scary movies. If you're looking to fill your October evenings with a steady diet of candy corn and fright flicks, you can do a lot worse than 1408. At the very least, give it a rental. None but the biggest fans need watch both versions of the film, however. If you only have time (and interest) for one, watch the director's cut, then the last ten minutes of the theatrical release. Though neither ending satisfies completely, each works in its own right. Though 1408 isn't quite a movie you'd want to risk a late check-out for, as a one-night stand (see what I did there?), it's worth a visit.
Thanks to a literal hung jury, 1408 is found Not Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• "John Cusack on 1408"
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