Mike Enslin (John Cusack) writes books about haunted places. He doesn’t really believe in the whole idea, but it helps pay the bills and allows him to live in Hermosa Beach and catch an occasional wave on his surfboard. His books sell well, but his celebrity is dwindling, so as he looks for a subject to end his current book, he receives a postcard from the Dolphin Hotel in New York City. “Do Not Enter Room 1408” the postcard reads. Mike’s research reveals a number of deaths have occurred throughout the years in this room, room 1408 of the Dolphin Hotel. He calls to make a reservation and the room seems to be permanently booked. All of this naturally piques the interest of the disbeliever. He talks to his publisher (Tony Shalhoub) and the publisher’s lawyer agrees to help. When Mike arrives, the manager, Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) tries to bribe, plead, threaten, scare and entice Mike to cancel his planned stay in room 1408. “That room is evil” he tells the writer. “No one has stayed in there for more than an hour.” Mike won’t have any of it and heads upstairs. As soon as he is in the room, Mike starts dictating his thoughts and notes for the book. Then, some strange things start to happen.
“1408” is based on a Stephen King short story and it does something that few ‘horror’ films do today. It is actually scary. The current trend in horror films, thrillers, what ever word you want to use to classify them, is to make them as gory and bloody as possible. “1408” builds a fair amount of psychological horror, scares that occur in Mike’s mind, allowing our thoughts to fill in the details. This type of horror is always more scary than simply watching a bunch of knives, some blood, gory murders, the like.
Director Mikael Hafstrom, whose last film was my least favorite film of 2005, “Derailed”, does a really good job of establishing Mike’s character, his background, his current animosity towards his line of work, everything that would make him a skeptic. So when Mike enters room 1408, we almost believe what he believes, that he won’t see anything, nothing will happen.
But then, there would be no need to pay $11 to see a movie called “1408” if that were the case, right?
The screenwriters, Mike Greenberg and Scott Alexander (Alexander worked on the screenplays for “The People Vs. Larry Flynt” and “Man on the Moon” among others) deserve credit for adapting the short story by Stephen King into a fairly well rounded feature length film. They add a lot of back story for Mike, help establish his skepticism by showing us a visit he makes to another haunted inn, and much more. They have filled in a lot of the details King only hinted at in the original story.
This is basically John Cusack’s film. There are brief moments with Samuel L. Jackson, Tony Shalhoub, Mary McCormack and others, but once Cusack’s Mike enters that room, everything is about what happens to his character and what his character does in response.
So it is important for the details of Mike’s character to be established ahead of time. Hafstrom and the screenwriters have done a lot of this work, but without Cusack’s performance, the film would fail.
Let’s talk about John Cusack for a moment. Cusack is a remarkably underrated actor. Not an A-lister, he is, nonetheless, remarkably good. Sure, he has his share of missteps (“Must Love Dogs”, “The Ice Harvest” anyone?) but when he is in a film, I can almost always count on at least an interesting film which has been elevated by his performance. Yet in most of his films, Cusack’s performance adds significantly to the overall quality of the film, delivering some quirky, excellent, memorable films. “Grosse Point Blank”, “High Fidelity”, “Say Anything”, “Being John Malkovich” all contain a unique, quirky performance from Cusack that helps to elevate the film.
In “1408”, Cusack plays Mike Enslin, a writer of books about haunted places. Throughout the film, we get further hints about Mike’s past, his dreams, his failures, and these all help to contribute to his character. These moments aren’t superfluous; they all mean something and add to the horror he later experiences. For instance, Mike doesn’t really believe in haunted places, but the books he writes pay the bills, so he feigns interest and belief. Also, he once had dreams of being a great writer, and is surprised when a woman comes to a book signing with his lone fiction title, a much dog eared paperback that she wants him to autograph. The book’s appearance is like a knife in his heart.
But the most important part of his past lies in his relationship with his ex-wife and daughter. Naturally, when an evil spirit is trying to drive someone mad, they will use the most precious memories that person holds dear to aid in the process. And evil, evil room 1408 is no exception. It knows all about Mike’s past and uses this information to drive the skeptic over the edge.
Samuel L. Jackson is very good as Gerald Olin. He seems to genuinely care about Mike’s welfare and doesn’t want him to stay in the room. But the role is very small and the filmmakers do themselves an injustice by listing Jackson as one of the stars of the film. His role is really a cameo and if it had been billed as such, his appearance would help provide a nice little boost to the film.
If you are familiar with Stephen King’s writing, he has written many short stories about things becoming possessed by evil spirits and haunting ‘reg’lar’ folks. Dogs, classic cars, cats, toys, the like. Many of these stretch the credibility factor, but still remain very watch able. In “1408”, a hotel room is possessed by evil spirits. And you know, it works. Because the film takes some time to set up Mike’s skepticism towards haunted places, he enters the room a disbeliever. Since we are living this story through Mike, we also enter the room a disbeliever. Once he begins to experience the various freakish things, we feel the freakish things.
Virtually all of the horror in “1408” is derived from events or circumstances in Mike’s life. And this makes the film all the creepier because it is slightly more believable. I can’t really believe I am using this word when discussing a film about an evil hotel room, but there you have it. The film is believable for long stretches of time because we believe in Mike, and John Cusack’s portrayal of the character. In fact, the film has very little blood or gore; there are a couple of shots of some of the other people who have died in the room but most of these are in black and white. And this is such a welcome change of pace from the current ‘norm’.
“1408” was a big surprise.