It’s a late Friday afternoon on State Street, right in the heart of downtown Santa Barbara. Middle-aged women cling absently to the arms of rich, older men. Beautiful coeds laugh and drink milkshakes outside a burger stand called The Habit. Palm trees sway. The world is sunny and bright.
My friend Eli and I shuffle among the crowds before ducking into the darkness of the Metro 4 Theatre to watch the new horror flick “1408.” After buying a $6 large soda, we sit down in the dim theater and pour $4 worth of cheap Borski vodka into it. At this point, neither of us realizes the irony of drinking during this movie. But as its story progresses, the sunny beachscape outside is pushed out of our minds by the dour environs of a Manhattan hotel room. Day becomes night, complacency becomes madness and the lost souls that thrill us come to represent the truly frightening specters of remorse, selfishness and addiction.
On the surface, “1408” is the story of Mike Enslin (John Cusack), a talented but overlooked writer driven to write haunted-house guides to generate income. He is bored and restless. Then, one fateful day, he gets a mysterious postcard from the Dolphin Hotel in New York that advises him to “stay away from room 1408.” His interest is adequately piqued so that some as-yet-unknown tragedy that had once befallen him in New York cannot keep him away.
When he gets to his destination, the only static he receives for trying to stay in this dangerous room comes from Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), the hotel manager. Olin offers penthouse upgrades, cigars and – most importantly – a bottle of excellent, aged Scotch in place of a stay in room 1408. Enslin will not budge. Gerald still protests, citing 56 deaths in the room scare him off. Enslin takes the booze, but eventually convinces Olin to let him stay. As soon as Enslin is in the room, the clock radio begins to count down from 60 minutes – because no one makes it a full hour in the scary suite – and everything begins to go wrong.
As far as thrillers go, it is refreshing to see a movie create some surprising scares with psychological bombardment instead of gore. The air conditioning jumps from hot to freezing, pictures move, the same goddamn Carpenters song blares over and over on the clock radio. By the time ghosts start flying from off-screen, lunging with knives or jumping past Enslin and out of windows, the viewer is already thoroughly on edge.
A particularly frightening and bitterly humorous scene shows Enslin planning an escape route on one of the “In Case of Fire” maps located on the door. After failing to reach the window of the next room, he comes panting back to the map to find the other rooms wiped away: only 1408 remains. The shocks become more and more emotionally disturbing, as Enslin eventually has to confront his estranged wife and the ghosts of his dead father and daughter. Like any good mystery, the plot always keeps us guessing as to whether these ghosts are real or if 1408 is just a “Twilight Zone” projection of Mike’s subconscious mind coping with the loss of a child. In any case, the script’s pacing and Cusack’s cynical-turned-tortured performance both do an amazing job of propelling the riveting action.
Now, as far as I’m concerned, the movie isn’t about ghosts at all. I submit to you new readers, in the style of “Are You Afraid of the Dark,” the true story of “1408”: It is a well-crafted metaphor for the devastating personal and emotional effects of alcoholism. The film was based on a short story by Stephen King, who admitted to alcohol abuse problems that almost ended his career. Booze, water and regret function as three ever-present motifs throughout this chronicling of a man’s descent into a lonely, selfish prison he has made for himself, and of his brave escape. It made me think twice about sipping that vodka-soda again.
I do not think I could have seen a better movie to write about for new students. I’m not Aesop and I refuse to lecture you. But, I do recommend “1408” as both satisfying entertainment and an affecting symbolic representation of addiction. It encourages me to say, “Live up the SB party lifestyle, but not so much that you begin to feel enclosed and suffocated.” Besides, that’s your freshman roommate’s job anyway.