1408, based on the short story by Stephen King, is a slick psychological thriller masquerading as a good old-fashioned ghost story. It’s old-fashioned in the sense that it relies on the jump-and-scare technique rather than the slash-and-burn one. It also relies on some fiendishly clever twists and an intelligent script that’s smart not just because it quotes Dante and addresses the problem of free-will, though that certainly doesn’t hurt.
John Cusak stars as Mike Enslin, a cynical writer of hack guides to haunted places. The twist, the first of many, is that he himself doesn’t buy into the paranormal, though he doesn’t let on in his books. A fast buck is fast buck and as far as he’s concerned, there’s always a logical explanation, even if it isn’t readily apparent. And he’s been looking, hence the guides to haunted places, which is as much a quest to prove to himself that his dead daughter may have an existence in the hereafter. All that is about to change. In his mail, among the usual detritus of brochures for supposedly haunted places, is a cunning postcard from the Dolphin Hotel in New York. Meticulously addressed to Mike in California, it bears the simple message “Don’t stay in room 1408.” Mike can’t resist, especially after he tries to book that room and is told it is never available and is then hung up on. His publisher (Tony Shaloub) involves a lawyer, who invokes a civil rights law, and gets Mike the booking. Even then, the hotel manager (Samuel L. Jackson) tries to dissuade Mike from staying, offering an upgrade to a penthouse, an obscenely expensive bottle of booze, and the clippings and notes for everyone who’s died in that room since the hotel opened in 1912. That would be a body count of 56, especially impressive since the room has not been occupied in the last 11 years, not so much out of concern for the putative victims, as the manager’s dislike of having to clean up the mess. Undeterred, and snagging the liquor and the clippings anyway, Mike checks in and the fun begins.
The story takes great care to cover all bases in the logic department. There’s the whys and wherefores of why the room hasn’t been dismantled, reasonable explanations for what happens next that may or may not be valid, and it sets a time limit. It’s stated clearly that no one has stayed more than an hour in that room and come out alive. It also builds slowly. A chocolate on a pillow that shouldn’t be there. A radio that plays all by itself (the syrupy Carpenter’s ballad “We’ve Only Just Begun” for a piquant contrast to the ghostly goings-on), and then starts a countdown from 60 minutes. Director Mikael Hafstrom takes his time, going for the off-kilter shots that render the commonplace surreal and investing a sense of vertigo in the audience. He creates a pitch-perfect set-up for Mike’s battle with the room, which, in a counter-intuitive move that makes for another nice twist, he decides to concede early on, even before the phenomena with no logical explanations begin. For him, it’s enough with the strange noises, the thermostat that plays tricks, the window that may or may not have deliberately smacked his hand, and the hotel engineer that won’t set foot in the room. At first, he attempts to allay his building dread by keeping up a steady stream of patter into his tape recorder, mixing the usual writer’s notes on the deplorable décor with philosophical musings on why all hotel rooms are creepy, even the ones that aren’t haunted or, in the words of the hotel manager, just f-ing evil. By the time he decides to bail, though, the room has him trapped. Moreover, this room is more than just evil, it’s sentient and, apparently, something of a mind-reader. Along with all the usual odd noises and peculiar events, this being Stephen King, there is, of course, the wall that bleeds, Mike is given a guided tour of is recent past, including glimpses of the life he had before his daughter died and his relationship with his wife disintegrated.
Cusak, in essentially a one-man show, rides the emotional roller-coaster with an understated aplomb as a man who has lost his grip on his life and now may be losing his grip on reality. He slips effortlessly from hard-bitten cynic, to worried doubter, to full-scale panic without losing the genuine sense of Mike’s witty self-loathing. He also implies the sense of Mike’s broken heart tucked away in a convenient compartment right from the get-go, so that the catharsis of his brush with death via the paranormal is a relief to the audience as well as the character. His performance, in another twist for films in this genre, is the equal to the fine special effects, that go more for eerie than ooky.
1408 is a nifty flick. Scary, smart, and righteously twisted, it’s a popcorn flick with an unexpected heart, and not the kind that’s pulled, still beating, from someone chest.