1408 seems to prove the existing axiom that, when adapting Stephen King to the screen, restraint trumps excess almost every time. The best adaptations of the author’s work, The Dead Zone, Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption, eschew raw grand guignol gore for the rich characterizations that exemplify King’s best writing. Ninety-percent of the disposable films bearing his name are guilty of the same crime, namely tossing overboard the elements that raise even mediocre King stories above the genre’s normally low standards.
Adapted from a short story that King began for a book on the art and process of writing, 1408 tells the tale if Mike Enslin (John Cusack), a down-on-his-luck writer who pens cynical books about haunted castles and hotels. He researches his works by spending the night in the places he intends to write about. He receives postcard from a 90-plus-year-old hotel in New York City called the Dolphin with a warning not to stay in room 1408. Intrigued, he tries to book a stay in the room, only to be told it is unavailable even before he says when he wants to check in. Despite his persistence, the hotel steadfastly refuses to take his reservation. Finally, with the help of his publisher, he manages books the room.
When he arrives, however, the hotel’s imposing manager, Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), tries desperately to dissuade him from staying in the room, even trying to bribe him with an $800 bottle of whiskey. He informs Mike that 56 people have died in the room in the hotel’s history, many of them bizarrely and gruesomely, and that no one has ever lasted more than an hour in there. Mike cynically assumes the man is just overhyping the room’s reputation to help bring in customers, but Olin insists that he is not acting out of profit motive or even concern for Mike’s safety. He simply doesn’t want to clean up another mess.
Scoffing at Olin’s warning, Mike heads up to the room. At first, nothing seems out of the ordinary. Indeed, the room is almost depressingly banal. The first signs of strangeness are quiet, even benign, but not even the cynical author can ignore it when the digital alarm clock stops showing the time and starts counting down from sixty minutes, even when it’s unplugged from the wall.
The film is almost perfectly paced, slowly building a sense of dread for the first half-hour. The next forty-five minutes are a relentless assault on Mike’s sanity while the last half-hour features some neat twists and turns that avoid the more obvious clichés.
Samuel L. Jackson manages to be equal parts empathetic and sinister in a brief but pivotal part. The success of the film, however, rests squarely on John Cusack’s well-modulated performance, as he is the only person onscreen for most of its running time. The role of Mike Enslin is full of opportunities to go over the top with the emoting but Cusack keeps the character’s losses of control to a strategic minimum.
Another rule of effective horror stories is that they require a sympathetic character as the target of the malevolence forces at the center of the tale, and Mike is a nicely shaded example of this. His outwardly cynical shell is built on a history of loss, his daughter followed by his faith. He exploits people’s belief in the afterlife for profit despite rejecting it himself, because he thought the idea of God and heaven robbed his terminally ill little girl of her will to fight to stay in this world.
The film is probably not going to appeal the gore hounds that have inexplicably turned trash like Saw into a franchise, but 1408’s modest success reassures me that there is at least an audience for intelligently scary movies.