You do not have to read the original short story "1408," part of the longer anthology Everything's Eventual: 14 Dark Tales, to know that the central idea comes from author Stephen King. In fact, one must assume that the movie was pitched in production meetings as "The Shining in New York." And while it's true that this cinematic take on "1408" recycles so many narrative strings tied to King's overall body of work, it somehow modifies them into a surprisingly fresh, tight and effective thriller.
Renowned travel writer Mike Enslin (John Cusack
), like most characters in King's ouvere, is haunted by his own demons. Hiding behind alcohol and a refined cynicism, Enslin scours the country for legitimate haunted habitats, rating rooms on a "shiver scale." A bed-and-breakfast with good food but moderate mood gets five skulls, in his opinion. This movie, based on Enslin's most terrifying encounter, would receive a solid eight skulls. Article continues below
An unsigned postcard in Enslin's mailbox simply warns him not to stay in room 1408 at New York's Dolphin Hotel. Intrigued, the author tries to reserve the room and is rebuffed. Ensin pursues the matter, shrugging off repeated warnings issued by the facility's firm manager (Samuel L. Jackson
in a bit part) to not enter the room. But to stay out would mean we have no movie, and so Cusack makes himself comfortable in the spacious but undoubtedly spooky hotel for a night(mare) to remember.
Director Mikael Hafstrom
, who last helmed the forgettable Jennifer Aniston
thriller Derailed, ups his visual tricks to rival King's experienced prose. Some of 1408 deals in cheap parlor games. Clocks keep running when unplugged from their sockets, windows slam on people's hands, and the walls crack and bleed.
But we need to discover the root of Enslin's sadness to really connect with the man, and Hafstrom invents a number of clever ways to stage flashbacks that never seem cheap or forced. He also plays with sounds throughout the film, placing children's voices where they don't belong and removing noises when there should be deafening tones. It's unnerving, in a really good way.
1408 is gruesome and psychologically chilling, not gory and shockingly gross. The cynical Enslin is a role tailored to Cusack's strengths. The actor has played the skeptic before, and usually maintains a detached level of disbelief in even the most mundane of situations. Enslin is a stock character, but Cusack tears down his conventions to tap into an emotional core of paranoia and fear that lends smarts to this admitted genre picture. It also helps that Cusack, much like Jack Nicholson
in The Shining, holds a touch of madness behind his eyes. Ghost stories always work better when the terror affects an already haunted soul, and that description fits both Enslin and Cusack.
Prior to 1408, a trailer played for an upcoming film Captivity
. From what I can gather, Elisha Cuthbert
of The Girl Next Door is drugged, abducted, held captive, and tortured by a sadistic maniac. Perhaps it will be an Oscar winner. If so, the best parts have been left out of the promotional reel.
But it got me thinking. How has this, along with Hostel
, and The Hills Have Eyes
, become the accepted form of titillating terror in Hollywood? Movies of this ilk are abusive, demeaning, and unwatchable, and I'm dying for the current production cycle that grinds out this disgusting filth to end.
1408 suggests a step in the right direction. This and Vacancy
, a Sony release from earlier this year, prove that filmmakers can operate within the confines of an established genre and still elicit healthy scares. Shock has lost its value. The real money is in legitimate fear.