During his recent stint as a guest columnist for Entertainment Weekly, Stephen King has made no secret of his fondness for “Lost,” the surreal ABC drama that pits the survivors of a plane crash against supernatural forces as thrilling as they are confounding. This should come as little surprise to fans of King’s stories — he has always been fascinated by the mysteries of life, the bizarre phenomena that can’t be explained away with logic or reason, and he has spent his career translating that natural wonder into tales of the merrily macabre.
Mike Enslin (John Cusack) doesn’t share that wonder. Like King, he is a writer who enjoys a good scare, but the similarities end there. A self-confessed nihilist, Mike has lost his passion for pretty much everything, save for his job. He seeks out haunted houses and the ghosts who are said to inhabit them, documenting his experiences in a series of hokey travel guides. Even then, he remains the consummate cynic — he longs for proof of the paranormal, but he can’t bring himself to believe.
He’s in for a rude awakening. Lurking behind the door of Room 1408 at New York’s Dolphin Hotel is no less than hell itself, and Mike is only too eager for a guided tour. Ignoring the cryptic warnings of the Dolphin’s seemingly benign manager (Samuel L. Jackson), who informs us that 1408 has already claimed 56 victims, he settles in for another quiet evening of busting myths. Big mistake.
Like William Friedkin’s “Bug,” “1408” relies less on blood and butchery than paranoia. Has Mike lost his mind? Maybe. He is trapped in a tense, claustrophobic nightmare that threatens to swallow him whole, if only he’d stop fighting it. He is not without options — as the relentlessly cheery hotel operator explains, he can always opt for “express checkout” — but Mike doesn’t want to be victim number 57.
Cusack spends much of the film alone in the room, playing against walls, paintings and air vents. Even the alarm clock seems to have it in for him. Entrusted to a lesser actor, “1408” might have come across as melodramatic or just plain ridiculous, but Cusack keeps it grounded with a performance that is funny at times, heartbreaking at others.
Through little fault of his own, King’s stories have often lost their luster on the big screen, but “1408” does not. From the start, it builds to a point of unbearable tension and then rewards us with a payoff that is cleverlyexecuted and genuinely terrifying. By the time Mike reaches wit’s end, trapped in a prison that may exist only in his mind, he is tired, frightened and emotionally spent — and we’re right there with him.
Starring John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack, Tony Shalhoub
Written by Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, based on a story by Stephen King
Directed by Mikael Hafstrom
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes