Written by Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, based on the short story by Stephen King
Directed by Mikael Hafstrom
Starring: John Cusack (Mike Enslin); Samuel L. Jackson (Gerald Olin); Mary McCormack (Lily Enslin); Tony Shalhoub (Sam Farrell); Len Cariou (Enslin, Sr.); Jasmine Jessica Anthony (Katie Enslin); Isiah Whitlock, Jr. (The Hotel Engineer); Benny Urquidez (Claw Hammer Maniac)
During the 1970s and 80s, the words “based on a novel by Stephen King” spoken in a low voice at the beginning of a film trailer was guaranteed to get the heart racing, to say nothing of cash registers in cinemas chiming. But the cow simply couldn’t give milk forever: too many substandard products with King’s name attached, whether they were dreary adaptations of good novels (such as Firestarter (1984) or Pet Semetery (1989)), bad novels turned into equally pointless films (such as Dolores Claiborne (1992) or Dreamcatcher (2003)) or hopelessly misguided original screenplays (anyone remember Sleepwalkers (1992) or King’s own TV miniseries version of The Shining (1997)), sullied the brand and soon a King adaptation was just the very thing to avoid. In hindsight, such a thing had to happen; screenwriters and directors (including King himself) simply forgot what it was that made a good Stephen King adaptation so special. Thankfully, Frank Darabont came along and reminded people (with films like The Shawshank Redemption (1994), The Green Mile (1999), and The Mist (2007)) that the pen of Stephen King could still pack a punch, but he was an exception to the rule. Thus was my mind frame upon the release of Mikael Hafstrom’s 1408.
1408 had two strikes against it before the opening credits rolled; it was an adaptation of a short story (King’s short stories had never been successfully adapted up to that point), and it was an adaptation of a damned good short story. King’s “1408” is a new take on the same kind of situation that he explored in The Shining, although he would condense the scares from an entire, sprawling hotel to one room on the 13th floor (known as the 14th floor for superstitious reasons) and centering on psychological horror rather than the clanking chains of ghosts. The bulk of the story takes place in one of two settings, the office of Mr. Olin, the hotel manager, where King effectively sets up the story while Olin tries in vain to keep ghost-hunting writer Mike Enslin from staying in the room, and in room 1408 itself, where Mike learns exactly what Mr. Olin was talking about. The seventy minutes that Mike spends in 1408 is written in grade-A hair-raising prose that raises bumps on the skin and proves that King still had more to say on the subject of fright. He produced his scariest story in years, and then came the news that it was going to be adapted into a feature-length film (just like Children Of The Corn (1984) and Graveyard Shift (1990), two misfires from King’s canon).
But 1408 was different. The screenwriters (Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) knew that there was no way that they could adapt the story faithfully; there simply wasn’t enough story to fill 106 minutes of film. The obvious solution was two-fold: give Mike Enslin a back-story that leads to dramatic conflict, and come up with a lot more scary shit to throw at him while he’s trapped in 1408’s walls. They succeeded beyond everyone’s wildest dreams and turned 1408 into a modern-horror masterpiece.
In the film, Mike Enslin (John Cusack) is the author of the “10 Haunted…” series of books (Ten haunted houses, graveyards, castles, etc.) and is currently scouting out the tenth haunted hotel room for his latest endeavor. His cynical nature is revealed during the opening scenes when he spends an uneventful night at a supposedly haunted hotel and all but admits to a paltry crowd at a book-signing that his books are worthless, if there are such things as ghosts, he’s never seen them. He’s a cynic, but the film reveals that he’s running away from real trauma, the death of his ten year-old daughter Katie (Jasmine Jessica Anthony) and the breakup of his marriage as a result (there is also some talk about his estrangement from his father, but the film leaves that subject vague). Mike’s cynicism, an unattractive trait in a writer of true-horror stories, is a result of his feelings of injustice that his child was taken from him (“How could there be a God that would let this happen to a little girl,” he asks his wife Lily (Mary McCormack) in a flashback) but there is also a sense that his search for ghosts leaves the door cracked open (just a bit) that maybe, just maybe, there is life after death, in which case Katie might be in Heaven rather than in oblivion. He tells his two fans at his book signing that he would love to see a ghost someday, but he also tells Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) that he knows that there are no such things. He says these things for different reasons (he doesn’t want to antagonize his fans but he also wants to get the key to room 1408 out of Olin’s clutches), so what view represents Mike’s true feelings? It’s difficult to answer this question, but we know what his feelings will be by the end of this film.
As for Mike’s experiences in 1408, a few of them do indeed come from the source material, with the rest spewing from the minds of the screenwriters. With each new turn the room takes to psychologically torture Mike, it almost feels like the writers began each new idea with the words “Oh, wouldn’t it be cool if…” and thankfully, they prove themselves to be right nearly every time. The horrors start off slowly, with instances like Mike suddenly finding himself back at the elevator before he even enters 1408 and finding simple little oddities that he can’t explain (chocolates left on a pillow that he was formally propping himself up on, a radio that continually plays “We’ve Only Just Begun” by the Carpenters), but things soon accelerate. The next twenty minutes sees him recording his experiences for posterity on his mini-recorder (a device that the screenwriters kept from the original story and which pays off in the film’s last few minutes); he speaks eloquently about the horrible portraits and stained carpets until a strange series of accidents resulting in an injured hand forces him to admit to defeat and run for the door… but the room isn’t done with him yet.
When the key breaks off in Mike’s hand and disappears into the lock, Mike is a prisoner, even though neither he nor the audience knows it yet. The room becomes a fine, mesh cage that he must escape, and the script expertly thwarts him at every turn. Traversing the ledge outside the window leads him discover that there isn’t another window for miles around; the only escape is plunging to the street. Mike tries traversing the vents above and only finds fragments of his former lives on display in the other rooms and the rotting corpse of the room’s first victim crawling towards him until he crashes back into 1408. As the digital clock ticks down the remaining minutes from sixty (“No one ever lasted more than an hour in 1408,” warned Olin), Mike counts down his remaining moments that include getting drenched by the fire sprinklers and shivering as the room drops towards absolute zero. But every time that Mike believes he has found a lifeline to the outside world, the room’s claws reel him back in. He finds himself able to contact Lily, only to realize that the room is preparing to suck her in just like him. Police dispatched to room 1408 find the room empty, and Mike realizes that he must face the demons on his own… until he wakes up on the beach after a surfing accident and begins to believe that his entire experience in 1408 never happened at all.
I can only imagine that Stephen King, upon seeing the film, wished that he had thought up something like what the screenwriters came up with: “Let’s try to convince the audience that the entire film was a dream and then pull the rug out from under them.” For approximately ten minutes, the audience breathes a sigh of relief as Mike finds himself back on the beach, his entire experience a horrible dream caused by a near-death experience. He subsequently has a heart-to-heart conversation with Lily (and, in the uncut version, with his aging father as well) and writes his entire experience as a new novel, seemingly expunging himself of horror of both Katie’s death and his dream of 1408. But with a crash, Mike suddenly realizes that his deliverance is the actual dream; he can only stand silently as the ghoulies of 1408 dismantle his dreamworld around him, brick by brick, and shove him back into the dilapidated room. One line of dialog from King’s short story that didn’t make it into the screenplay (which is a shame) is “Even if you leave this room, you can never leave this room.” Those words are etched onto Mike’s face as he looks around and realizes that his salvation was just another mind game.
Little has been said about the performance of John Cusack in the lead role; the very nature of the film demands that he be at the top of his game. As good as the screenplay is, if Cusack had phoned in his performance than the picture would’ve been a failure; there are simply no other characters from whom the plot can hang from. Cusack is alone in that room for the bulk of the film and his performance is extraordinary. A naturally sympathetic actor, Cusack does well portraying a cynical asshole; he apparently eats sarcasm and smarm for breakfast. He believes himself to be the cleverest man on the planet, but everyone else, from Mr. Olin down the engineer (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) who comes to fix Mike’s thermostat but refuses to enter 1408, know better. Another facet of the original story that doesn’t fully translate to the film is Mike’s belief that his cynicism is his strongest weapon against things that go bump in the night; actually it’s his greatest weakness. 1408 takes great pleasure in peeling away Mike’s protective layers of cynicism until there’s nothing left. Only then does Mike see Katie coming towards him, shivering and with bleeding feet, and asks “Daddy, don’t you love me anymore?” Cusack sells this moment for all its worth; the audience believes his heartbreak when he hugs his little girl one last time before she dies in his arms. Mike finally realizes that he doesn’t want success or to write another book, all he wants is to have his family back.
The room plays one more trick on him, it threatens to force Mike to relive the entire hour again unless he kills himself, but Mike has a trick too, using an expensive bottle of scotch as a Molotov cocktail to cleanse the room once and for all. While Hafstrom preferred an ending where Mike dies in the fire, for once I prefer the ending that the studio foisted upon him: Mike survives and reconciles with Lily. This ending has a final punch that the original ending doesn’t, Lily hears her dead daughter’s voice on Mike’s charred tape recorder and Mike can only stare sadly at her look of shock. The original ending, where Olin hears Katie’s voice, just doesn’t have the emotional sting (Why should he care if Katie was in the room with Mike?). If you have a choice, see the theatrically released version of the film: it moves at a good pace (the dream sequence in the extended cut is far too long) and the ending gives you a little bit more of Cusack’s great performance. All in all, amongst Stephen King adaptations, there aren’t many worth seeing even once (let alone seeing them enough times to write an extended review). 1408 is one of the few: a great story from a great writer that, against all odds, turned out to be a great film.