"Five. This is five. Ignore the sirens. Even if you leave this room, you can never leave this room. Eight. This is eight. We have killed your friends. Every friend is now dead."
When I was a kid, I had an irrational fear of the recording that comes up when you've left your phone off the hook for too long. I recall occasions of being alone in unlit rooms at dusk and hearing that voice and feeling my heart stop and my muscles freeze. It was the disconnection through the earpiece. I could imagine that voice saying anything, saying bad things. There's a moment in 1408 when we hear a voice like that over the phone -- disconnected not from time, but from any sense of caring or goodness. It tells Mike Enslin to do a very bad thing to himself and I felt the same chill in my heart. Congratulations 1408, you actually gave me a scare and it blows my mind how rare that is considering how I spend my Octobers.
Mike (John Cusack) is a travel journalist who specializes in debunking haunted hotel legends throughout the country. One day, he receives an anonymous postcard from the Dolphin Hotel in New York City telling him "Don't enter 1408." Mike books the room, but only after heavy resistance from the hotel's manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson). Olin explains in greater detail a little of the room's history. Many people have died odd and sometimes violent deaths in there. My favorite of these stories involved a maid who accidentally got locked alone in the bathroom and emerged just a few moments later, having gouged her own eyes out with a pair of scissors. "She was laughing hysterically," Olin adds.
Olin also explains that whatever it is that's leading all of these people to their deaths, it isn't a ghost. Mike does meet more than one ghost in his time in 1408, but the real threat is something less well defined. It has a variety of faces -- it can be the pain you brought in with you, or the pain brought in by everyone whoever died there. It is whatever it can be that makes you uncomfortable. The worst part about the room, going back to that unfortunate maid, isn't that it kills you. It's that it shows you things that are so toxically bad that killing yourself becomes a welcome alternative.
The film is based on a short story by Stephen King, who has a marvelous gift for finding our fear with sometimes the most innocuous-seeming verbal tools. Dig that quote at the top of the review. We don't know what "five" is, or "eight". But by the time we hear the voice over the phone uttering these numbers, it doesn't matter -- they may lack any significance whatsoever, but they're now woven into the mystery of the room. It reminds me of Orwell's "Room 101" -- for most of 1984, we don't know what's in Room 101, nor do the characters we follow. But when we think of how miserable their lives are, and that there's something in that room that scares them that much more...
We eventually enter 101 and find out that, like with 1408, the worst that the room has to offer is what we bring in with us. But in 101, it's merely people working the switches -- people who can change their mind, whose motivations aren't bad out of fatal necessity. That's just how life laid itself out in Oceania -- it's finite, and it depends on who controls the information. What's in 1408 is much worse because it isn't human, and it certainly isn't finite. There's an entire world of badness behind the locked door of 1408 and unfortunately, most people never get to leave it.