I’ve never been a fan of Stephen King, whether he’s penning horror fiction, epic fantasy, or Entertainment Weekly columns so horrendously trite they make you want to throw all of American pop culture right out the window. And though a great deal of his life’s work has been adapted for film and television, my disinterest in the author’s tales of demons and ghouls has kept me away from them, for the most part. It probably doesn’t help that for every Shining or Carrie I’ve missed I’ve had to sit through goofy junk like Dreamcatcher. Thankfully the time has come for me to eat my hat and say I have finally found a King project I can get behind.
1408 covers ground any follower of his majesty will recognize instantly. John Cusack plays Mike Enslin, a once idealistic author who now cranks out cynical dissections of America’s supposedly haunted hot spots. Like most of King’s male protagonists, Mike is a bit of a drinker and has more than a few personal demons to contend with floating around in his noggin, which makes him perfect fodder for the evil to be found in Room 1408. Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) is the proprietor of The Dolphin Hotel and, thusly, the titular suite, and so it is his role to spout the unsettling warnings our hero will inevitably ignore for the sake of a scoop. What happens next? A whole lot of spooky mama-jama, that’s what.
Of course, we should know this going in, and so the movie has fun during its introduction by being overtly bombastic and overly cinematic. The soundtrack is a few shades of subtlety away from including a wailing Latin chorus, and the simple turning of 1408’s front lock is realized through an epic CGI shot of grimy, clanking locks. Cusack lends the proceedings a nice sense of dry humor as well, cracking wise at every other character he meets. And you just can’t beat Jackson’s dull-eyed delivery of a line like, “It’s an evil fucking room.”
I don’t mention these moments because the movie is campy, but because they provide the intentional comedy that allowed I and the rest of the audience to take its scares and suspense seriously. Too often horror movies without a funny bone get thrown into theaters, resulting in unintentional laughter from viewers who, after a while, can’t help but poke fun at such a dour tone. Being able to laugh at Cusack’s one-liners makes him appealing and his character more developed, and so we’re more willing to go with him on his journey.
And what a strange, disturbing journey it is, ladies and gentlemen. The movie wisely builds tension by starting off small, throwing manageable obstacles at Mike before moving on to bigger, more bizarre ideas. Some work better than others, such as the cheesy ghosts versus a melting phone straight out of Videodrome, but at no point does the parade of chills falter. This is key, considering how much time we are expected to spend stuck in one location.
The only qualm I have with the film overall is a few of its plot turns, the most troublesome being a red herring sequence anyone could spot as being nothing more than another one of 1408’s manipulative tricks. The ending is also muddled and raises more questions than answers, but at least it doesn’t try to hammer home a lame twist like so many films these days. I would definitely recommend 1408 despite these criticisms, since it delivers genuine frights and is visually fantastic. And hell, when’s the next time you’re gonna see Cusack in a decent film?