Good old Stephen King. Where would we be without his ability/penchant for seeing evil in every little nook and cranny and objet d’ art around us? To recap, he has cunningly spotted the ungodliness in men (‘The Dark Half’), women (‘Misery’), kids (‘Children of the Corn’), clowns (‘It’), dogs (‘Cujo’), cats (‘The Cat From Hell’), cars (‘Christine’), trinkets (‘Needful Things’), and fad diets (‘Thinner’), making the world safer for every cowering, paranoid believer in the paranormal.
King also, of course, wrote famously of the malevolent mojo plaguing the hallways of an otherwise lovely little hotel, in ‘The Shining’; though a certain kind of odiousness is surely not confined to that book’s Overlook Hotel, but probably part and parcel of any fine, touristy establishment known to man. Perhaps to drive that point home and beyond, King offered up ‘1408’, his version of the gothic ghostly room at the inn, as if to say ‘if you thought the Overlook was bad, check out the crummy service in Room No. the-numbers-add-up-to-13.’ Long and short? Room 1408 at Manhattan’s Dolphin Hotel is an evil room. Or, as Samuel L. Jackson’s urbane and only slightly sinister hotel manager Gerald Olin intones dramatically at the beginning of the film version, ‘an evil f***ing room.’
Like many of King’s protagonists, 1408’s Mike Enslin (John Cusack) is a writer, one who writes about the supernatural, but who, ironically, does not believe in ghosts. A kind of paranormal investigator, Enslin stakes out rumoured haunted houses and alleged ghostly goings-on, the resulting non-experiences only confirming his lack of belief. Of course, like any tortured writer worth his ink, he has A PAST, that is hinted at intermittently. One day, he receives anonymously a postcard of the Dolphin, telling him to stay out of Room 1408. Needless to say, Enslin decides to do the exact opposite and finds himself staring down the Dolphin’s manager (Jackson) who recounts the bloody history of suicides and other nasties in 1408 and warns him that no one has lasted more than an hour inside the wicked chambre. The scribe is not to be deterred however, and armed with a Dictaphone, a laptop, a pricey bottle of Scotch and a lone cigarette tucked artfully behind his ear, he enters 1408. And then, as they say in polite company, the spit hits the fan.
Slowly at first, but with alarming alacrity, the evil in the room starts to have its way with Mr. Unbelieving Writer Man. As an aperitif, 1408 has on offer the radio that can’t/won’t be switched off, the sudden noise vacuum, the doppelganger in the building across the road. For the entrée, you can gorge on the freaky apparitions of guests past, on the front door that can’t/won’t be opened, and the neighboring rooms that seem to vanish into thin air. And for dessert, the horrific remnants of one’s own past prancing about, and the psychotically pleasant voice on the phone that informs you that you can keep on reliving the preceding hellish one hour forever, or choose to avail the ‘express checkout system.’
In an era of fare like Saw and Hostel, and other nausea-inducing torture-porn, 1408 is a refreshing and welcome entry – a good old-fashioned ghost story that relies on atmospherics and clever psychological scares rather than latex fleshy bits, buckets of corn-syrup blood and DIY implements to deliver its horror. The first half, in particular, offers up some genuine whoa! moments as the room ratchets up the mind games. Who knew The Carpenters’ syrupy love ditty ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’ could be so bottoms-up creepy?
Unfortunately, as with all good things, someone decides to get all hokey and louses up a perfectly fun ghoul fest. As soon as Enslin’s tragic back story comes into play, the narrative goes off the rails, aiming for emotional resonance but fatally hampering the frights instead, before limping to its cop-out of a climax. On the upside though, there is just enough meaty calm before the anemic storm to keep one happy. Not least of which is John Cusack in the lead role.
Cusack is the other ‘finest actor of his generation’ who deserves to be a far bigger star than he is (the first one being Johnny Depp before Pirates). In what is essentially a one-man show, he carries the whole film on his able shoulders, playing it subtle and coolly nervy where a lesser performer might have been tempted to be over-the-top shrill and wild-eyed. 1408 may not land Cusack on the Hollywood A-list, but serves as yet another reminder that in the acting stakes, he is always a contender.
All in all, 1408 leaves you with the following piece of wisdom: if Sam Jackson tells you to leave well enough alone, it’s best you pay heed, for it’s not for nothing that he is the baddest mutha on the planet.