The phrase “based on a story by Stephen King,” as a general rule, is far scarier than any movie that’s actually based on a story by Stephen King. Fortunately, “1408” is the first movie in years (decades?) to rise above its dubious distinction. It may not be run-to-church-and-repent terrifying, but it is relentless and unsettling, and as a bonus, it turns a Carpenters wedding staple into a murder ballad. That, my friends, takes skill.
John Cusack plays Mike Enslin, an author that makes his living cynically debunking the myths of haunted locales. He receives a mysterious postcard from the Dolphin Hotel in New York City, telling him not to stay in room 1408. Mike, convinced it’s a publicity stunt on the hotel’s part, does some research, likes what he sees, and books a night’s stay in hopes of showing them up. The hotel manager, Gerald (Samuel L. Jackson), warns him that no one has lasted more than an hour in the room without suffering some horrible accident (or death), but Mike is undeterred. The first few strange occurrences – the radio turning on by itself, chocolates appearing on the bed pillow – amuse Mike more than anything else, but it is not long before he has to concede that what he is dealing with is far greater than some clever parlor trick.
The beauty of “1408” is that it seemed to sense what I was thinking at nearly every moment. Just when I thought I had found a rational explanation for what was happening, they would rule it out. On the flip side, just when I thought the movie had jumped the shark – there is one painful “oh no you di’int” sequence – it reels the viewer back in, exhausted. As an added bonus, the dialogue is whip-smart and darkly funny, though thankfully not in the reference-heavy manner that buoys a lot of TV writing. (I love “Veronica Mars,” but man, did they steal.) Indeed, there was one line that left the critics-only audience (i.e. a bunch of writers) in stitches. You’ll know it when you hear it.
One can only assume that Cusack has switched agents since shooting “Must Love Dogs” and found someone who knows his strengths, because Mike Enslin is as Cusack as roles come. Likewise, the studio had to be doing jumping jacks when he signed on for the movie, since his presence will do wonders for reeling in that elusive female horror fan (fellow critic Kristin Dreyer Kramer of Nights and Weekends, for one, was a puddle on the floor in the lobby afterwards). While it was jarring to see Cusack scream as much as he does here, it makes sense when you take into account that he is, well, losing his freaking mind. Samuel L. Jackson, along with everyone else in the movie, is a distant second in terms of screen time. Director Mikael Hafstrom, whose only other English-speaking movie was the much-maligned “Derailed,” shows a flair for the Fincher-esque in the way he puts the POV in places you have never seen, which leads to imagery of both the eye-popping and disturbing variety. I’m not sure if it’s as disturbing as their use of the Carpenters, but it’s pretty damn close.
“1408” plays out like a Stephen King version of the J-horror flick “Dark Water,” with King driving a “normal” person to madness instead of someone that’s already teetering on the edge. The big difference is that where “Dark Water” was more interested in being occasionally creepy, “1408” goes for the throat, or at least goes for the throat as much as a PG-13 movie is allowed. Still, PG-13 or not, it’s ten times more effective than those mutant rape/torture-happy gore fests could ever dream of being.(3.5 / 5)
This originally ran June 22, 2007 on Bullz-Eye.com.