After the tragic loss of his young daughter to a debilitating disease, author Mike Enslin's world is shattered. He separates from his wife, Lily, and tries to bury his emotional torment under a mountain of work. A semi-successful writer of haunted-hotel and possessed-graveyard stories, Mike totes his toolbox of spectrometers and infrared cameras to reported sites of paranormal activity, records his findings and then cranks out books to feed his fans' obsession with ghosts and demons.
Of course, he doesn't really believe in any of it. In fact, since losing his daughter he has become a cynical, lifeless husk of a man who doesn't believe in much of anything.
Then Mike gets wind of a mysterious room in a hotel called The Dolphin. Purportedly, more than 50 people have met their end in room 1408. So he sets off to New York to debunk another ghost story and spend one more dreary, sleepless night dictating notes into his handheld recorder.
But the hotel manager refuses to let the writer stay in the deadly room. He insists that it's evil, that no one has ever spent more than an hour in the room and lived. To emphasize his point, he tells Mike that they give room 1408 a light cleaning only once a month; the manager personally escorts the staff in and out, never letting the door close behind them. Mike grins, taking this news as nothing more than a stunt to increase the mystery (and the hotel's bookings), and threatens to sue his way into the room. The manager pleads his case all the more, finally saying, "I don't want you to check into 1408 because I don't want to clean up the mess." But Mike refuses to back down.
Turning the key in the lock, the gloating scribbler strides into the hotel room and instantly loses his sense of triumph. He finds 1408 to be the bland nothing of a room that he expected all along. "This is it?" he asks.
This time, however, is it.
Bizarre happenings commence: The clock radio unexpectedly blares out an eerily telling Carpenter's tune and starts ticking down from 60 minutes. The walls shift. Paintings swim. Bogeymen become real as Mike realizes—too late—that what he believes to be true isn't necessarily the truth.
Particularly in room 1408.
After letting his personal pain drive a wedge between him and his wife ("Every time I looked at you I saw her face"), Mike's experience in room 1408 strips away all his foolish pretences and helps him realize how much he needs and loves her. Lily does everything she can to help her estranged husband (in spite of his past choices). [Spoiler Warning] Ultimately, she is the instrument of his (temporal) salvation.
Mike and Lily are trying to comfort their dying young daughter, Katie, when she asks, "Are there people where I'm going?" Mike tries to change the subject, but Katie assures her dad that it's OK because "everyone dies." Lily tells her daughter that her destination after death (it's never explicitly called heaven) will be a beautiful place. Katie asks, "Will God be there?" Mike answers in the affirmative. Katie looks searchingly at her dad and asks him, "Do you really believe that?"
Mike says his beloved daughter's illness is confirmation that there is no God. "What kind of God would do this to a little girl?" He later speaks of his skepticism about "ghoulies, ghosties and long-legged beasties," and says, "There's no God to protect us from them, is there?" In room 1408, he finds a Bible and tosses it aside. With time, as the horrors mount, the writer looks to the Word for comfort and discovers that all its pages are now blank. After a series of torments, Mike talks to a "hotel operator" from the phone in 1408 and asks why they don't just kill him and get it over with. The operator's answer to that question implies that the haunted room is trying to induce Mike to commit suicide: "Because all guests of this hotel enjoy the benefit of free will."
[Spoiler Warning] Through several painful scenes, Mike's dead daughter calls for his help and cries about being afraid, longing to be with him again. She questions if her father loves her any longer. When Mike thinks he's free from his prison, he repeats, "Thank God" a number of times.
Lily wears a low-cut top. Mike flips on the TV and sees the pay-per-view order screen for a series of porn films. Several people are in bathing suits on a beach (including bikini-clad girls and bare-chested guys).
The hotel manager gives Mike a file of pictures of people who have committed suicide or died "naturally" in room 1408. We catch quick glimpses of photographs of several blood-splattered dead bodies, along with a close-up of what appears to be someone's throat wound and a woman drowned in the bathtub. As Mike searches the room for blood stains, the pictured images come flashing back to his mind's eye.
Several ghostly specters of previous suicide victims in the room jump out of its window. Mike's hand is smashed in the same window and then scalded by steam. He wraps the bleeding mitt in a cloth, but blood soaks through, streaking walls and furniture. Mike sees a vision of his daughter walking over broken plaster with bleeding feet. Later, he hugs her close to himself, and she dies in his arms and crumbles to ash. Mike is attacked by several ghoulish creatures (he kicks one, and its skull-like head crumbles). He also falls from an elevated ventilation shaft onto a table and clings precariously to a window ledge.
Water floods the room from a painting, and Mike almost drowns. The same room gets set ablaze by a Molotov cocktail.
Crude or Profane Language
The f-word knocks once, while the s-word pounds 10 times. Other profanities include four or five uses each of "a--," "h---" and "d--n." "B--ch" and "b--tard" also show up. Jesus and God are both blasphemed, with God's name being mixed four times with the word "d--n."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Mike drinks hard alcohol and beer on a number of occasions. For instance, one night in a hotel room, he dictates notes and plows his way through a basket of minibar-sized bottles of booze. In room 1408, Mike takes many ample swigs directly from a large bottle of alcohol. Hotel patrons consume wine in the lobby. The hotel manager imbibes a glass of scotch. Mike and his wife indulge in wine and tequila over dinner.
Although Mike professes to have quit smoking, he always carries a cigarette over his left ear in case of an emergency. At a particularly disastrous moment near the end of the film, he lights and smokes it. He also sees himself smoking a cigarette earlier.
Other Negative Elements
A painting shows a woman baring her breast to feed what appears to be a dead child on her lap.
1408 is an old-school scare tale adapted from a short story by Stephen King and made palpably immersive by the deft crafting of director Mikael Håfström and the perfectly pitched acting of John Cusack. Sidestepping the hack-and-slash gore that splatters most of today's horror, the movie takes an off-center Twilight Zone approach to the genre and sucks its audience down a swirling psychological drain.
Mike Enslin is physically battered and emotionally pummeled as he thrashes around a physics-defying hotel room that seems to be crumbling from paranormal dry rot. But is he being tricked? Has he been drugged? He grabs his recorder and whispers intensely to himself, "We don't rattle." We in the audience, though, are never quite sure if all this bedevilment is being perpetrated by a sly hotel manager, true supernatural horrors or by Enslin's own collapsing sanity.
Alongside this single-occupancy dementia, the film raises some significant questions: What really happens after we die? How can terrible things happen to the innocent? How do we deal with the harshest tragedies that life tosses at us? What foundation, what anchor, do we have?
Unfortunately, while it sets us to pondering, the film also plunges us into a typical Stephen King world where evil is omnipotent and goodness, if it wins at all, succeeds not on its own strength and virtue, but by happenstance.
Hints are tossed out that love will overcome and that believing in something larger than oneself might be important. But these are only the merest wisps, and they're swallowed whole by 90 white-knuckled minutes of ... ghoulies, ghosties and long-legged beasties.