Author, journalist, DIY bomb maker and gun loving liberal Hunter S. Thompon (aka the ‘Good Doctor’) was celebrated for many things, none more so than his brutally colourful pointy-edged prose, his lust for drugs and alcohol and his legendary ability to transform hotel rooms into sites that reportedly resembled zones of apocalyptic destruction.
Like any personality ensconced by a thick mist of legend, it’s impossible to separate myth from man, fact from fabrication. However Thompson’s seminal semi-autobiographical early 70’s novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (adapted by director Terry Gilliam in 1998) cemented him as a counter-culture guru with a penchant for narcotic-infused political writing, ’round the clock room service and a spectacular disregard for hotel etiquette.
If we narrow the field to these three factors — writing, drugs and trashing hotel rooms — there are few films that binge on all three enough to be considered honoured residents in the suites of cinematic gonzoism.
The obvious examples of those that do orbit around representations of Thompson. There’s Where the Buffalo Roam (Art Linson, 1980), starring Bill Murray as the Good Doctor himself, and two films featuring Johnny Depp as a more cartoony version of Thompson: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Rum Diary (Bruce Robinson, 2012).
Murray and Depp are the only two film actors to have officially incarnated the drug-addled Doc. Both relished the task of playing up to his mannerisms and eccentricities, such as Thompson’s habit of dictating his thoughts into a voice recorder while riding the crest of whatever drink or mind-altering substance he was riding at the time.
HST fans may be pleased to learn that an unofficial third performance exists. It can be found within the unlikely confines of a Stephen King adaptation and stamped across the boyish mat of John Cusack’s countenance.
Swedish director Mikael Håfström’s 1408 (2007) is a largely single setting horror film about a cocky writer’s night from hell in a haunted hotel room. Manager of the fancy Dolphin Hotel, Gerald Olin (Samuel L Jackson), implores the writer not to stay in the room. “It’s an evil fucking room,” he says. “Frankly, selfishly, I just don’t want to clean up the mess.”
But Mike Enslin (Cusak) has made a living touring allegedly paranormal locations and debunking them, penning books that rack up easy dosh then end up in the discount bin. His catch phrase is “stay scared.” It isn’t surprising that Olin doesn’t convince him to back down despite tales of previous guests suffering a surfeit of fates: heart attacks, strokes, suicide, self-harm, etcetera. One even drowned in chicken soup.
“That’s hard to do, how did he do that?” Enslin asks.
So he checks in and one epic night of Kafkaesque craziness — one bad, bad, bad, bad, bad trip — ensues.
Enslin sips from a bottle of fine on-the-house whiskey and navigates the room, talking into his dictaphone and filling it with observations that could have been plucked right from HST chronicles:
There’s a sofa, a writing desk, faux antique armoire, floral wallpaper. Carpet’s unremarkable except for a stain beneath a thrift-store painting of a schooner lost at sea. The work is done in the predictably dull fashion of Currier and Ives. The second painting is of an old woman reading bedtime stories – a Whistler knockoff – to a group of deranged children while another Madonna and child watch from the background. It does have the vague air of menace.
As that vague menace manifests into horrible visions, Enslin’s head trip scores a soundtrack, set to the tune of The Carpenter’s We’ve Only Just Began. The song is played through an alarm clock radio and becomes a signal of inescapable despair — just as Hunter S. Thompson’s Samoan attorney in Fear and Loathing (played in the film by Benicio Del Toro) set the pangs of his anguish to Jefferson’s Airplane’s White Rabbit, requesting a recorder playing it be hurled into a bathtub to fry him into the afterlife when the chorus peeks (“feed your hee-eeaaadddd”).
When Enslin starts to tumble down the rabbit role, and 1408 whips up a storm of savage images to accompany his fall, his first reaction is to question whether the whiskey might have been spiked with drugs — an elaborate LSD infused ruse, perhaps, from a shrewd publicity hungry manager. At this point it’s clear the film can just as easily be interpreted as a haunted mind story — read: going bonkers on drugs — as it can a haunted hotel story.
Thompson wrote in Fear and Loathing, one of many slabs of narration ported into Terry Gilliam’s adaptation:
Hallucinations are bad enough. But after awhile you learn to cope with things like seeing your dead grandmother crawling up your leg with a knife in her teeth. Most acid fanciers can handle this sort of thing.
As if to test that grim theory, Håfström throws at his protagonist visions of family: Enslin’s wife and young, late daughter, who died a child riddled by some horrible chronic illness. That’s the moment in which Enslin — the acid fancier, as it were — can’t turn back; the exits are blocked; the shit got real; the head trip is horror deeply personalised.
One of the first scenes in The Rum Diary (released in March this year) depicts Johnny Depp in his underwear in a hotel room, shirtless and sheepish looking with unkempt hair and one red eye, swallowing pills dry as room service knocks on his door. The mini-bar has been ripped off the wall, scuff marks and scratches on it. He couldn’t find the lock, which — as the alarmed staff member explains — can be easily opened with one of the keys provided upon check-in.
There’s a scene in 1408 in which Cusack also confronts a mini-bar. “The movie lost me when John Cusack started screaming at a bar fridge,” one wag tweeted me the other day, but no matter, it’s a telling moment: the fiend has gone far beyond what the powers of alcohol can placate, and sees through a trick of vision in the back of the fridge none other than Mr Olin. Enslin is screaming and hollering and crying foul, furious at the bastard who tried to convince him not to enter.
1408 is torture gonzo, a film that subtracts the recreational fun from HST’s legend and replaces it with hellish intensity. It’s not torture in a rusty blade sense — though there’s a nip of that too in the film’s gnarly images of ghosts walking around the Dolphin — but as a state of mind, the hotel hallway a corridor leading to chambers of the psyche air conditioned with the chilling menace of permanent dread, a reverse memory palace populated by nightmares present and future.
It’s the tale of what could have gone wrong for Hunter S. Thompson in a Vegas hotel room. A drug he could never escape; a high he could never come down from; a bad trip he could never snap out of; a fear and loathing that never subsided, or, as a plot dovetail in 1408 depicts, apparently goes away only to come back harder and nastier, flavoured with the taste of false sobriety. It’s not the outside world but a well disguised foyer until (literally, in the film) walls and scaffolding are teared down to reveal the same room, the same ugly state of mind.
Hunter S. Thompson ended his life with a bullet in his head in 2005, writing his own twist ending, for reasons — like every suicide — nobody can fully comprehend. Maybe the hotel room in his mind got trashed too many times. Or the key stopped turning.
In the context of the gonzo canon, 1408 explores the extreme dangers of acid benders, presenting a now poisoned bud of flower power far more twisted than the kind HST chewed on in the 70’s, shifting from Stephen King schlock to Eagles analogy — the hotel you can check out of but never leave.
In the song and in 1408 “check out” implies death in one form or another, juxtaposed alongside something not even death can leave behind — the corridors of addiction, or experimentation, or perhaps just weird inclination, the motives of future guests destined to sample the same crazy merch. The hotel a caged edifice accessible by doors of perception that swing one way only.
Aldous Huxley wrote “the man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out.” As a metaphor that line fits the legend of Hunter S. Thompson, who seemed not just to take drugs but to live them, and it’s literalised in 1408, the forgotten gonzo film in which bat country crazy got serious.