Paste’s ABCs of Horror is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in last year’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019. With some heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
What’s that? You thought we were done with this series, just because we’d gotten to “Z”? WRONG! We have one last trick up our sleeves—an acknowledgement of all those horror films that begin not with an actual letter of the alphabet, but a number. After all, how else could we have included 1408? And rest assured, 1408 is a film that deserves more good things written about it.
It’s safe to say that the very idea of PG-13 horror cinema isn’t particularly popular among genre geeks. The self-policing of a genre that is often defined by its transgressiveness, violence and intensity was never going to be popular among the more hardcore adherents, but PG-13 horror flicks have persisted anyway because they just make too much financial sense for studios to ignore. The 13 to 17-year-old market is a potentially lucrative one, as junior high and high school students want to go to the movies unattended—and they’re always been a primary demographic for horror films. This has meant the existence of PG-13 horror for as long as the PG-13 rating has existed (since 1984), but the phenomenon truly seemed to hit a toothless peak in the mid-2000s. In that moment, besieged by PG-13 films like The Messengers, Darkness Falls, Soul Survivors and One Missed Call, one could be forgiven for missing out on 1408, thinking it was more of the same.
Suffice to say, this is a classic combination of supernatural chiller and psychological horror that breaks free from the basic limitations of its MPA rating, proving that emotionally intense (and effectively scary) horror is indeed possible, even with what initially appears to be a major handicap. You can chalk part of that up to some top-notch art direction and cinematography, which imbue the titular haunted hotel room with a spirit that is chilling in the pedestrian nature of its surface-level appearance—it all but begs you to consider how many random acts of violence or pain may have occurred in any hotel room where you find yourself spending the night. How many permanent ghosts are left behind in a place that is used as a transitory shelter for people drifting from one station of life to another? What is a hotel room, if not a metaphor for limbo, or purgatory?
John Cusack plays protagonist Mike Enslin, an egotistical asshole author who has been happy to profit off the supernatural for his whole, hacky career, feigning fright when visiting famously haunted locales, but he quickly becomes indignant to the point of blind fury at the idea of supernatural occurrences actually being visited upon him. Perhaps he did actually believe in a higher power, or something beyond death once, as a younger man … before losing his young daughter, that is. Now estranged from his wife, he has hardened his heart to the point of total withdrawal, and that’s no doubt why the malevolent force in Room 1408 finds him such an enticing target. The presence in that place relishes the opportunity to force Mike to confront his own spiritual emptiness and obsolescence, confident that it can quickly drive him over the edge. Enslin is without a doubt a classic Stephen King protagonist, in the sense that he seems to embody the qualities the author most dislikes or fears in himself—among them, the ever-lingering sense of imposter syndrome, a self-loathing that empowers destructive decisions.
Spooky things happen in the hotel room, naturally. Cusack begins to see the grisly fates of those who shared the room in the decades prior, and the way their violent ends stained this corner of space and time. The room itself slowly seems to become unmoored from objective reality. The passage of time becomes uncertain, speeding in different directions for those inside and outside of the room. An alarm clock begins an ominous countdown, and the mocking voice of the room itself imitates both loved ones and Mike’s own inner monologue. The room ultimately demonstrates such vast and awe-inspiring ability to alter one’s own perceptions that even some kind of victory over it could never be fully trusted—there would always be a little voice, wondering if you weren’t falling victim to another long con. It’s considerably more cerebral than you would expect from a film with the logline of “a man spends a night in a haunted hotel room.”
Please note: If you seek out a digital or physical copy of 1408 to watch, be aware that the film has multiple endings of considerably different quality. One, labeled as the “director’s cut” ending, was the original ending shot but not the ending used in the film’s theatrical release. Perhaps contrary to expectation, this is also the significantly less satisfying ending to 1408—it crams in an unearned, last-minute jump scare and also leaves the character of Mike’s wife in the dark when it comes to the nature of what happened to her husband when he visited that nexus of evil.
Far better is the second ending that was shot, and the one that was used in the film’s initial theatrical release—this conclusion to the story gives an unexpected catharsis (both beautiful and frightening) to both father and mother, and is far more poignant as a result. It opens the door to the possibility of healing, and an acknowledgement of the grand mysteries beyond the veil that the couple can face as a unit. It allows 1408 to close on a note of both grief for the world and hope for the world beyond. It’s simply the more memorable of the two endings—a rare example of apparent studio meddling that resulted in an improved film.
Regardless, if there’s one thing that won’t ever come to mind while watching 1408, it’s concern over a PG-13 rating. It’s perfect just as it is.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.