Released in 2007, 1408 was the first theatrical Stephen King adaptation in a number of years, and it serves as a shrewd reminder as to why so many of the horror maestro’s works have been adapted for the screen. 1408 actually started life as a short story as opposed to a fully-fledged novel (or novella), hence screenwriters Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski were compelled to beef up the source material, altering and adding various things to produce a feature-length product. Luckily, the resultant movie captures the chilling spirit of King’s work, making for a predominantly effective thriller that also stands as one of the stronger adaptations of a Stephen King story. If you like being spooked out without having your intelligence insulted, then 1408 is for you.
A non-fiction writer, Mike Enslin (John Cusack) has made a career for himself from writing about his experiences in supposedly haunted attractions. He has never seen a ghost or experienced a paranormal phenomena, and is therefore sceptical about every locale he visits. For his latest novel, Enslin decides to spend the night at New York City’s Dolphin Hotel, in room 1408. According to the hotel’s manager, Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), it’s a cursed room which has been the site of countless deaths. Although Olin vehemently objects to Enslin’s desire to stay in 1408, Enslin pushes ahead nevertheless, determined to stay overnight in the dreaded room. However, Enslin begins to change his tune when unexplained visions occur. Before long, Enslin is stuck in a nightmarish predicament, fighting for his life to avoid becoming another victim of the room’s supernatural power.
Unfortunately, the concept for 1408 is not entirely suited for a 100-minute feature film. It’s based on a short story, after all, hence a shorter movie would probably be more appropriate. It takes about half an hour to get to the feared hotel room, and once we’re in, there’s not a great deal for director Mikael Håfström to do, as he desperately fills the narrative with as much creepy imagery, suspense, and character dimension as possible. A bulk of it does work, but some of it doesn’t, most notably a prolonged third-act detour which goes on for far too long and does not entirely work. Furthermore, it’s clear that Håfström and the writers weren’t sure how best to wrap up the movie, thus there are a handful of alternate endings. The director’s cut ending is perhaps the most satisfying due to how dark it is, but none of the conclusions work particularly well, which is a shame considering how strong most of the lead-up is. It’s not a deal-killer, of course, but it doesn’t leave you with much of a lingering impression.
Nevertheless, 1408 is bolstered by some real positives. Håfström’s direction is slick and effective, building an eerie claustrophobic atmosphere and displaying a proclivity for Hitchcock-inspired compositions. Håfström is a terrific visual stylist, and he has created some arresting images here. When the room reveals its true evil nature, the shocks are unsettling and inventive, even if the film does begin to wear out its welcome by the third act.1408 is a PG-13 thriller, yet it doesn’t feel gutted by the rating, with brief glimpses of disturbing images and plenty of honest-to-goodness tension. The experience is especially unnerving since Håfström never explains the exact nature of what Enslin is dealing with. Is Enslin being toyed with by the hotel staff? Is he in Hell? Could his sanity be eroding? Is Enslin projecting his inner turmoils on the room itself? None of these possibilities are debunked throughout the movie, and nothing is conclusive by the end. And even if 1408 is actually supernatural, we don’t know what the cause is. Olin provides the best explanation: “It’s an evil fucking room.”
For the most part, 1408 is a one-man show, spotlighting Cusack alone in the hotel room struggling to deal with whatever horrors befall him. It’s the actor’s finest performance in years, calling upon a wide range of emotions, and transforming from aloof sceptic to a terrified man who’s utterly out of his depth. Enslin is forced to confront demons from his past, and these scenes have emotional impact thanks to Cusack, who lends them the right amount of weight. Cusack is simply terrific, and the picture would be doomed without him. Meanwhile, the supporting cast are barely seen; the only notable performer is Jackson, who brings his usual vitality and cool to the role of the hotel manager.
Although uneven, 1408 is well worth watching, as it really soars from time to time. Not since In the Mouth of Madness have The Carpenters been so creepy, and never has Cusack been this deranged.1408 is not about to set the world on fire, but it’s so refreshing when compared to the usual dull standard for Hollywood horror movies, especially all the soulless PG-13 endeavours. Torture porn enthusiasts will find the movie lacking, but fans of creepy mysteries in the vein of The Twilight Zone will likely enjoy it.