Writer Mike Enslin (Cusack) makes a living debunking ghost stories by staying in haunted inns. When he gets a mysterious postcard warning of a New York hotels room 1408, he decides itll make for a great last chapter to his new book. Big mistake.
There’s been a distinct paucity of ghouls, goblins and ghosties in horror of late. While we’ve been treated to plenty of shocks à la buzz saw, thanks to the current wave of torture-porn, it’s been a while since all hell literally broke loose to satisfying effect.
1408 goes a long way to redressing that balance. Based on a short story by Stephen King, the original monarch of menace, it’s an inspired, white-knuckle chill-ride with old-school leanings.
The tale, first released as an audiobook in 2000, follows Mike Enslin (John Cusack), a man with a troubled family history who writes pulpy ghost guides. He replays the same ritual: checking into a supposedly ghost-infested hotel room, a single cigarette tucked behind his ear, and waiting until dawn. He’s given up the habit, but carries the smoke with him, the sole concession of a sceptic that there might be something out there, and that one night he’ll meet it. And sure enough, in Room 1408 of the Dolphin Hotel, that cigarette finally gets sparked.
Essentially, this is a one-man show: for most of the run-time, once Enslin enters 1408, it’s just a guy reacting to four walls and some furniture. In John Cusack’s hands, though, it becomes a lot more. It’s his first foray into the chilly mind-corridors of horror (unless you count psycho-thriller Identity), and he attacks it with impressive energy.
His Enslin starts cynical, pale as a ghost himself and haunted by memories; once the real haunting begins, he unravels before our eyes. Rather than ham it up, Cusack, a master of understatement, plays it cool and quiet, so when he does freak out, it’s all the more powerful.
Speaking of understatement, Samuel L. Jackson dials down his usual shouty schtick in a small role as the spooky hotel’s spookier manager. An effective early scene sees him plead with Enslin to stay away from the cursed 14th floor, producing grisly photos of earlier victims and delivering a one-liner that’s sure to become classic Jackson: “It’s an evil fucking room.” His other appearance, later on in the movie, doesn’t work so well, an unintentionally comical use of special effects that comes off like a deleted scene from Ghostbusters.
In fact, one niggle that can be raised is that the film gets swamped unnecessarily with CGI towards the end. Just as Kubrick’s take on The Shining cut out the supernatural animal topiaries, the makers of 1408 have excised some of King’s more colourful paranormal flourishes (adieu, woodcut wolf). Even so, the later, big-scale set-pieces don’t work as well as the early, squirmy jolts of fear as the room starts to turn on Enslin.
Proving you don’t need piles of body parts to make a scary movie, director Mikael Håfström wrings unease out of everyday guest-house items - chocolates left on a turned-down bed, an antique thermostat, the ominous red glow of an alarm clock. Once it’s set up, the frankly ridiculous duel - one man versus an en suite - works surprisingly well. So well, in fact, that it’s a shame when Håfström suffers from third-act nerves, involving Enslin’s family in the action and pulling a trick that’s meant as a clever twist but is actually a sneaky cheat.
Not up there with the best King adaptations, but a fun Gothic yarn that, like all good ghost stories, is simple and dripping with dread.