When’s the last time you saw a horror movie that gave you the chills instead of grossing you out with relentless close-ups of unthinkable violence? With movies like “Hostel” and “Saw” in the mainstream, I’m betting it’s been a while.
If creepiness is what you’re into, you might want to check out “1408,” the latest adaptation of a work by Stephen King. It was originally a short story and was included in the book, “Everything’s Eventual.” While there are some King movies that are excellent, such as “Stand by Me,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Shining,” and “The Green Mile,” it is fair to say that most of these movies are not so great. While “1408” is not likely to develop a reputation as lofty as those previously mentioned films, it is pretty good and fits in nicely with other mid-level King movies like 2004’s “Secret Window.”
“1408” tells the story of Mike Enslin (John Cusack), a formerly talented writer has made his living as a hack by writing about real-life haunted graveyards, hotels and other similarly spooky places. He doesn’t really believe in any of this junk, but keeps trudging along. Near the beginning of the movie, a girl shows up to a book signing of his and reminds him that he used to be a real writer. She asks him to sign a copy of his only published novel, which was apparently very personal.
One day, Mike gets a postcard from someone telling him about a room in the Hotel Dolphin in New York. According to the anonymous sender, the room 1408 (which is, of course, actually on the 13th floor) has a very lurid history. Thinking he has nothing to lose, Mike is intrigued and takes a trip to Manhattan. Upon arriving, Mr. Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), the hotel manager, is alerted of Mike’s plan and wants to put a stop to it. Mike’s publisher, however, has informed him that a law on the books requires hotels to give patrons whatever room they request if it isn’t already booked, so he’s unflappable.
You can guess what happens next, but the journey from here to the end of the movie is a long and harrowing one. Luckily, we’re along for the ride with Cusack, one of the most liked actors of his generation. Much in the same way moviegoers were stranded on a desert island with Tom Hanks for the majority of “Cast Away,” we spend most of “1408” locked in a room alone with Cusack. As always, he makes a fitting Everyman, so we relate to him right away, even if his character is extremely jaded and cynical.
Jackson also makes a memorable impression as Olin, though he only gets chew the scenery in the first act. When Mike gets to the Dolphin, we are just as skeptical as Mike (except that we’re fortunate enough to be aware that we’re watching a scary movie), but as Jackson breaks down the room’s history, we begin to feel uneasy. Mike is well aware of the suicides that occurred in the room because they were all widely reported in newspapers, but Olin also informs him that 20 people died apparent natural deaths in the room. The suicides are quite grisly and are described in as much detail as a PG-13 rating will allow. Olin tells Mike that he isn’t worried about protecting for whatever evil resides in that room: he just doesn’t want to clean up the mess.
With this scene, Jackson sets everything up so that by the time Cusack is seen turning his key in the lock, we’re already dreading what’s behind that wooden door. Here’s where the movie’s excellent set decoration and able camera work pay off. The room is big in the way that suites in old hotels are, but it still manages to be claustrophobic enough to make you feel nervous as soon as you’re inside. Of course, things start happening, as you would expect. First, it’s small things, which gradually become bigger and hard to explain. Before long, Mike is on the verge of losing his mind. Flashbacks reveal elements from his past play into his reasons for being such a skeptic and cynic. These flashbacks aren’t just thrown in arbitrarily to flesh out Mike’s back-story, though. The room seems to bring it out of him.
The movie is far from perfect, of course. Like any movie that gradually piles one weird incident on top of another to freak the audience out, it doesn’t take very long for it to hit its plateau. The occurrences can still get stranger, but then we are no longer as scared as we were in the beginning and we certainly aren’t surprised. Another flaw is that there is a moment where the audience is meant to believe there are seeing something that isn’t so, but the director holds on a bit longer than he should have. By the time the sequence inevitable comes full circle, the people in the audience have enough time to get their wits about them and stay a step ahead.
Still, “1408” is a pretty solid movie and welcome fit for the middle of summer. It’s a much more modest movie than a lot of the blockbusters currently in theaters, but it’s worth rooting for.
“1408” is rated PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned.