Perhaps the best thing about Mikael Hafstrom’s 1408 is simply the fact that it’s a genuine horror film and not merely a parade of sadism and torture masquerading as horror. In itself, the film is not a lot better than adequate. It offers precious little by way of surprises, which is a way of saying that it’s pretty much a standard Stephen King adaptation that wasn’t made by Brian DePalma, Stanley Kubrick or David Cronenberg. In other words, Hafstrom brings no particular signature to the film—but if you compare it to his last film, the egregiously silly Derailed (2005), that may not be such a bad thing. This is Stephen King Basic, but it’s done well; it’s slickly made, effective and nicely acted.
Think of the film’s story as the novel The Shining in miniature and you’re in the right ballpark. John Cusack plays the characteristic Stephen King alter ego, in this case a writer named Mike Enslin. Typically, Enslin started out as a serious writer, but his lack of financial success led him to carve a niche for himself as the author of books that explore supposedly haunted houses, hotels, graveyards etc. Also, in tried and true King fashion, Enslin has issues, resulting from the death of a daughter, Katie (Jasmine Jessica Anthony, TV’s Commander in Chief), and his subsequent estrangement from his wife, Lily (Mary McCormack, TV’s The West Wing).
One of Enslin’s great disappointments is the fact that he’s never actually encountered a real ghost in his researches, but that’s about to change when he receives a postcard from the Dolphin Hotel in New York that warns him not to go into room 1408. Research reveals that an improbably large number of people have died or committed suicide in this room, so naturally he sets his sights on it, only to find his efforts to book the room stymied at every turn. Obviously, he eventually gets in—otherwise there’d be no movie—and the bulk of the film details his experiences in 1408. It’s a functional premise, but nothing too exciting in and of itself. What makes it work more than not is the cleverness of the screenplay by Matt Greenberg (Reign of Fire) and writing partners Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood). The script is even amusing in the more or less successful ways it gets around the central improbability of the existence of a room that has played host to a whopping 56 deaths. Surely long before that impressive tally had been reached someone associated with the hotel would have had the damned thing bricked up, but, no, there are reasons (and a further implicit one) why it’s still around.
The room itself is an effectively creepy presence, not in the least because of its very ordinariness. Enslin even remarks about the “banality of evil,” which certainly seems to be the case since the evil presence continuously torments him with a clock radio that keeps playing the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun.” Can evil possibly get more banal than that? Most of the shock effects and spook-show stuff work on their own basis. OK, except for the bit where the painting of a ship at sea (probably intended as a reference to Mr. Coleridge’s “painted ship upon a painted ocean” from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) floods the room. Not only does it smack too much of the “bleeding” elevator doors in Kubrick’s film of The Shining (1980), but it looks for all the world like a gag in the Three Stooges short A-Plumbing We Will Go (1940). Nevertheless, most of the film is effective, while a few moments verge on positively surreal (and unsettling) imagery, and the overall truth-or-illusion material is well done, even if any savvy horror fan would know which is which all along. That said, the ending might surprise more than a few viewers by daring to do something so old that it’s new again.
It’s all pretty much Cusack’s show from beginning to end. Everyone else is largely window dressing, but classy window dressing. Samuel L. Jackson as the enigmatic hotel manager Gerald Olin is particularly good, though I admit I was really hoping for him to say, “I’ve had it with the motherf***ing ghosts in this motherf***ing hotel” (à la Snakes on a Plane), and that never happened.
As a spooky horror flick, it’s altogether a pleasurable show. And as did Gore Verbinski’s The Ring back in 2002, it puts the lie to the idea that horror has to be R-rated to be effective. Rated PG-13 for thematic material, including disturbing sequences of violence and terror, frightening images and language.