A classic haunted house tale transplanted into a single hotel room, "1408" is a nifty, goosebump-inducing thriller that keeps things taut and suspenseful without feeling the need to overcomplicate the narrative. Director Mikael Håfström (2005's "Derailed
"), along with screenwriters Matt Greenberg (2002's "Reign of Fire
") and Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski (2003's "Agent Cody Banks
), have done a solid job in using Stephen King's short story (from his 2003 anthology "Everything's Eventual") as a jumping-off point to expand, develop and in a few cases reinvent the author's ideas. The finished result is the best big-screen King adaptation since 1995's "Dolores Claiborne."
Mike Enslin (John Cusack) is an author who travels around the country debunking paranormal activity in allegedly haunted locations. In his work, he has never seen a ghost or experienced supernatural phenomena, and it is this desire to disprove the unknown that leads him to New York City's Dolphin Hotel. Upon arrival, manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) tries to talk Mike out of staying in 1408, a room normally off-limits to guests, revealing that some 56 deaths have occurred there in the hotel's history. "Nobody lasts more than one hour in that room," Gerald ominously tells him. Skeptical as he always is, Mike insists on pressing forward with his research. By the end of the night, Mike will not only believe in the paranormal, but he'll be fighting for his sanity, and maybe his own life.
Ghost stories are a tricky business in the film arena. What reads well on the page often tends to come off as tacky or cheesy when put before a camera. "1408," like 1999's "The Sixth Sense
" and 2001's "The Others
" before it, dodges most of these trappings. Instead of relying solely on boo scares to unfold a threadbare plot, director Mikael Håfström and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme (2006's "Breaking and Entering
") incorporate chilling imagery and heightened levels of tension into what is really a universal exploration of loss.
As Mike is accosted by nightmarish happenings in room 1408in one supremely frightening moment, he tries to get the attention of a man in the building across from him, only to discover it is a skewed mirror image of himselfand all attempts to escape the premises lead to dead ends, his tragic backstory floats into focus. A few years ago, his young daughter died of an incurable illness, a devastating experience that tore his heretofore happy marriage to Lily (Mary McCormack) apart. Mike hasn't been the same since, and when he begins to hear his daughter's voice and see visions of her that he knows aren't actually there, he is forced to confront the torturous memories of his past and ultimately find a way to let them go. A late scene involving Mike and daughter Katie (Jasmine Jessica Anthony) comes out of left fieldnot because its context is out of place, mind you, but because it blindsides you with an unexpected raw power and depth of humanity.
For twenty-plus years, John Cusack's (2003's "Identity
") career has gone unsung. Yes, he still works on a regular basis and is considered something of a box-office draw, but that doesn't make his long line of diverse performances any less underrated. There is a captivating charm and sincerity in each role he plays that makes him identifiable and wholly believable to the audience. It doesn't matter what the part is; he could be starring as a cold-blooded serial killer, and he would still manage to make the character accessible without once compromising the truth of the person. As Mike Enslin, John Cusack is superb, called upon to act for long stretches of time by himself in a single setting. He receives some help in the interest department from the spooky goings-on around him, but the film never loses sight of its focus on Mike. This is his story first and foremost, not the story of an evil hotel room, and that is the reason "1408" works so well. Lending support are Samuel L. Jackson (2006's "Snakes on a Plane
"), as manager Gerald Olin, and Mary McCormack (2003's "Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star
"), as Mike's estranged wife Lily. They ably fulfill the requirements of their limited roles, but this is Cusack's movie all the way.
There is a point during the start of the third act where it appears as if the escalating onslaught of special effects are about to negatively impact its conclusion. Fortunately, "1408" reels things back just in time for a denouement that is surprising and even lyrical. The frights come at a clip rateone set-piece set in an air shaft is almost unspeakably intense, and the use of The Carpenter's wistful love ballad "We've Only Just Begun" as a means of eliciting shivers is ingeniousbut it is the emotional journey Mike goes on that is most memorable and lasting. "1408" is sure to get hearts racing, but that's not all it's about. Underneath the atmosphere and pizzazz is an intimate and thoughtful portrait of one man's return from an abyss infinitely more haunting than any old, evil hotel room.