There’s a familar haunting in room 1408
Say what you will about Stephen King, but the man knows his way around a haunted hotel.
Seriously, have you seen The Shining recently? A lot can be credited to the cold, terrifying vision of Stanley Kubrick, but it undoubtedly stands the test of time and then some. Creepy kids riding tricycles down long, empty corridors, elevators full of blood – these sorts of things have no sell-by date.
It may not take place in the cavernous halls of the Overlook, but in 1408, based on a King short story, author Mike Enslin (John Cusack) observes that there’s something naturally spooky about any hotel room. The number of short-term lives lived therein will set an overactive imagination reeling.
Mike, in fact, has made this sort of thing into a career, writing a series of books on America’s supposedly haunted hotels (turn on the Travel Channel at virtually any time of day and you’ll understand how someone might spend years doing this).
That Mike doesn’t believe in ghosts makes his work a little easier and a little less honest, but he strikes the viewer as the kind of person who isn’t troubled by those sorts of concerns. A string of run-of-the-mill bed and breakfast spooks is broken when Mike receives an anonymous postcard from New York City’s moderately prestigious Dolphin Hotel. A succinct warning implores him never to enter room 1408, which piques his flagging interest.
His research turns up a series of ghastly suicides in the room, and he sets out for New York in search of new material. After the hotel manager (a miscast Samuel L. Jackson) fails to deter him, Mike tumbles through the looking glass as the evil in room 1408 forces him into the stark ruins of his personal life. There he is visited by a number of the room’s former tenants, and finds himself unable to leave once he realizes there’s something more at play here than tricks of shadow. The attendant claustrophobia, at its best, is gripping.
In another time and place, 1408 might have slid under my radar, and as much as I enjoyed it, that would have been no great loss. For all its sustained creepiness, the film is a pretty standard haunting story, but like most Americans these days, I’m burnt out on sequels at the moment – even more so than usual – so I immediately gravitated to this film because it’s not the second or third in a series. That alone earns it a solid B+ in my mind, and here I’m being completely serious.
I’ll add to that the fact that 1408 is closer to the kind of horror movie I prefer. There’s a little gore, sure, but it’s conservatively applied. Nobody gets eviscerated, has their toes cut off or begs for mercy while dangling from the end of a meat hook. The tension instead comes from a place that is pure Stephen King, in what might be lurking in that dark corner, in where the story might take you next. It has all the “boo” scares you might expect, but at least for a little while, it’s effective at establishing real dread.
The film has its decent points, and is quite good for all the things it is not, but on its own merit, it’s not great. 1408, as noted previously, started its life as a short story, and there’s certainly enough material here for a passing scare, but that’s all it is. After Mike enters the hotel room, for example, he’s mostly alone with whatever spirit or psychosis overtakes him. That’s perfectly all right for 20 pages or so, but I daresay this story could use one or two more substantive characters. Cusack’s performance is one of his stronger ones, though it’s perhaps not strong enough to sustain the entire film.
1408 gets off to a good start, but like so many otherwise decent horror films, it suffers from a weak, unsatisfying ending. I imagine it plays better on the page, when you can move on hopefully to the next short story in the collection. As an episode of a series like “The Twilight Zone” or “The Outer Limits,” it might have been outstanding, but I just don’t think there’s enough in the source material for a complete picture. Still, if you’re maxed out on pirates, ogres, human spiders and silver surfers, it might be worth your time to check into King’s hotel for an evening without a superhero.
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