The works of Stephen King are one of (if not the) biggest reasons that I fell in love with horror. With so many of his novels and short stories having been turned into feature films, it’s kind of hard to have never watched at least one – even if by accident. You have classic films such as The Shining and Pet Sematary, and then you have adaptations that you’re better off just reading the book (I’m looking at you here, Cell). Speaking of Cell, its two stars, John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson, happen to be in one of my all-time favorite King stories brought to life, 1408. Based on the short story of the same name, it started out as an audiobook (Blood and Smoke) before being printed in the collection, Everything’s Eventual in 2002.
In the film, John Cusack plays Mike Enslin, an author who is highly skeptical of anything paranormal (even if writing about it is how he chooses to make his living). I can’t really think of any John Cusack role that, after seeing it, I didn’t think he was absolutely perfect for and that includes Mike Enslin. He completely nails the snark of the non-believer and you buy him as an author just out to make a buck. Mike wants to believe… he’s just never been fortunate enough to stumble across any proof. That is until his encounter at the Dolphin Hotel. Samuel L. Jackson plays the manager of the Dolphin Hotel, Gerald Olin, and in a way that only he can. Olin is somehow scary and suave, smart and silly, all at the same time. There are only a couple of shared scenes between Jackson and Cusack, but they played off of each other like a couple of seasoned veterans, which they are. Olin really tried his best to keep Enslin out of that room, warning him that no one has lasted more than an hour. In the 95 year history of room 1408, there had been 56 deaths, ranging from murder to suicide to unknown. It didn’t matter to Enslin; he had a book to write and he needed the experience.
1408 was adapted by a trio of writers, Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander, and Larry Karaszewski, and for the most part they really captured the spirit of the short story and alter it very little. There are a couple of key changes and, of course, some additions to flesh out the world of the movie, but nothing as extreme as what happened with The Lawnmower Man (Don’t even get me started on that). Directing duties went to Mikael Hafstrom, who did a really amazing job, finding interesting angles and camera moves to help illustrate the surreal nature of the paranormal happenings within the room. It was never boring, with a creepiness that was quite perfect, making it always felt like poor John Cusack was being haunted.
It started almost as soon as he shut the door. Mike makes the rounds, commenting on how underwhelming the entire situation is and how much the room just wasn’t his style, all the while dictating this into his handheld tape recorder. As if on cue, the room decides to show up, blasting The Carpenters song We’ve Only Just Begun from the clock radio next to his bed. I had never found that song creepy until this film and now, every time I hear it, all I can think about is a possessed hotel room turning evil while a clock counts down just to taunt me.
At one point (when things have gotten really bad), Mike decides to video call his ex-wife Lily (played by Mary McCormack) for help, which was a bad idea because the room tries to lure her in as well. She has a brief time on screen, but does a fantastic job as his ex and everyone in this movie really understood the assignment. You had; Tony Shalhoub, Len Cariou, and Jasmine Jessica Anthony (as young. deceased Katie Enslin) just to name a few. Everybody came to play.
This movie leaned as much into the psychological horror as it did the “ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties,” as Mike Enslin would say. Of course, there were plenty of ghosts and horrible things that he was shown, but the room also preyed on his fears, past traumas, and pain. The room wasn’t messing around when it came to the skeptic; it wanted Mike to become one with the room very much like the Overlook Hotel wanted Jack Torrance. Stephen King really has a fear of hotels, I think.
In the end, Mike was able to beat the room, but only after setting it on fire. He then gets to hear his daughter’s voice and come to some kind of peace about that situation. There are several endings to the movie, my personal favorite being the theatrical version that I just mentioned. The fire releases Mike and he’s able to escape the room when the fire department shows up. Of course, in the alternate ending he dies smiling in that fire, knowing that he beat the room and all its ghosty glory. That ending is fun on occasion (he does get to walk into the afterlife holding hands with Katie), but the original really is the closest to the short story. In the short story though, rather than the room burning, he sets his clothes on fire, snapping himself out of whatever hold the room had on him and allowing him a chance to escape.
I really liked the changes that the writers made to the source material, though, I’m not sure you could call them changes so much as additions to the tale. The biggest and most blatant alteration would be the fact that, in the short story, Mike Enslin doesn’t have an ex-wife. There is no dead daughter to mourn. These are things the filmmakers added to really flesh out the character. Giving him a past and a real reason to want to believe in an afterlife makes his quest (as cynical as he may be) to find the answers that much more special. It made him a relatable person because we’ve all suffered loss at one point in our lives or another and how great would it be if we could see them one last time?
It’s amazing to me that 1408 exists as a film that’s such a faithful adaptation to the source material. Too often we see stories we love adapted into film and then watch as those stories have been ruined. I always say, “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it,” and that’s what the filmmakers did here. So if you haven’t given this movie a viewing in a while or if for whatever reason it just slipped under your radar, this is a horror movie worth several viewings. Now, it’s time to check into the Dolphin Hotel, but be prepared… it’s a very scary ride.
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