Director : Mikael Håfström
Screenplay : Matt Greenberg and Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski (based on the short story by Stephen King)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : John Cusack (Mike Enslin), Mary McCormack (Lily Enslin), Jasmine Jessica Anthony (Katie), Alexandra Silber (Young Woman at Book Signing), Tony Shalhoub (Sam Farrell), Emily Harvey (Secretary), Noah Lee Margetts (Bellboy Noah), Samuel L. Jackson (Gerald Olin)
1408, which is based on a short story by Stephen King and is the first film adaptation of the horror maestro's work in almost three years, presents us with a classic horror set-up: the secular skeptic who must rearrange his belief system after coming face to face with the supernatural. The skeptic here is Mike Enslin (John Cusack), a former novelist who has turned to writing popular guidebooks about supposedly haunted hotels. He checks in, asks for the haunted room, and spends the night there, encountering nothing again and again. To Enslin, “hauntings” are just good business ploys for small, quaint hotels in need of something to grab customers now that they're no longer on the main interstates. He's a paranormal investigator who genuinely expects to find nothing.
One day, Mike receives an unsigned postcard from the Dolphin Hotel in New York City that reads simply “Don't go in 1408.” His interest is peaked when he calls the hotel and is told again and again that the room is “unavailable.” Finally, through legal maneuvering, he manages to reserve the room; but, when he arrives, Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), the hotel's manager, pleads with him not to spend the night there. No one, Olin tells him, has lived in 1408 longer than an hour. Since the hotel's construction in 1912, 56 people have died in the room either by suicide or “natural causes” like a heart attack or, in one strange case, drowning in chicken soup. Enslin, of course, remains unswayed, believing it all to be an elaborate act designed to ensure that the hotel gets a big write-up in his next guidebook.
What Enslin finds in 1408 fills the majority of the film, and it is a mix of the expected and unexpected, including an increasingly and surprisingly effective use of The Carpenters' “We've Only Just Begun” to signal malevolence on the way. Considering that most of the story is set inside a single hotel room, director Mikael Håfström (Derailed) does a good job of keeping things interesting, playing on the fact that, as Enslin says, “hotels rooms are naturally creepy places,” especially ones in which 56 people have died. With limited physical terrain to explore, Håfström amplifies interiority through repeated extreme close-ups and an emphasis on Enslin's reactions to the various phenomena, which range from incredulity to outright terror and despair.
And, if you're going to spend most of a movie with one character inside a hotel room, you could do much worse than John Cusack for your lead. Cusack has an inherently likable persona, even if Enslin is a bit of a conceited cad--his smug self-assurance about his own place in the universe is just begging for a comeuppance. And a comeuppance he gets, one that is tailor-made to his own fears and failings, most of which are related to events involving his estranged wife (Mary McCormack) and daughter (Jasmine Jessica Anthony).
When 1408 works, it is a cannily effective horrorshow, even if its PG-13 scares sometimes feel like they've been pulled a bit (the emotional resonance of the horror is also muted because we don't know anything about Enslin until more than halfway through the story). While the logic doesn't always hold up entirely either, it creates an aura of ambiguity that leaves you with some intriguing questions at the end. Screenwriters Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander, and Larry Karaszewski should be given credit for not trying to tack on some strained explanation for why room 1408 is what it is. Unlike so many American horror films that deep-six their creepiness by explaining everything, 1408 is effective precisely because we don't know the exact nature of what Enslin is dealing with. It is more than enough to know, as Olin puts it in his unavoidably Samuel L. Jackson kind of way, “It's an evil f---ing room.”
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2007 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer