Even though its approach to horror is old-fashioned, the small-scale fright flick “1408” is a breath of fresh air in the wake of recent gore-filled torture-fests like the “Saw” and “Hostel” movies. It has a methodical set-up, some imaginative twists and turns, and an inspired lead performance by John Cusack. So it is too bad when “1408” stumbles one too many times and cannot escape the genre’s most common curse—the dumb ending.
Helmed by Swedish director Mikael Håfström, this psychological thriller is based on a short story by Steven King. The best kind of protagonist for any ghost movie is the through-and-through skeptic. Mike Enslin is not only that, he’s also a bitter jerk. With Cusack in the role, however, even the harshest personality can be somewhat likable. Like so many King characters before him, Enslin is a tortured novelist.
Håfström takes his time setting up Mike’s predicament, and the patience is initially well-rewarded. Once a serious writer, Enslin has been reduced to writing “haunted hotel” guides to make a living. At a sparsely-attended book signing in a big chain store, an under whelmed clerk can barely be bothered to announce his arrival over the loudspeaker. This sure-footed kind of character building feels necessary to the rest of the plot.
Soon he receives a mysterious postcard daring him not to stay in room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel in New York. Research reveals that scores of bizarre deaths have occurred in the room and the upscale hotel’s manager Mr. Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) initially refuses Mike entry, explaining that no one has lasted more than an hour alive. Interpreting Olin’s attitude as a well-oiled hype machine, Enslin is undeterred—and enters the room anyway.
Screenwriters Scott Alexander, Matt Greenberg and Larry Karaszewski make two effective choices right off the bat. Once Mike is trapped in the room, a clock starts ticking down from sixty minutes, putting a macabre deadline on his stay that creates more tension. And as the room slowly becomes a physical manifestation of Enslin’s inner demons, we gradually learn of his sad past with his wife and daughter, deepening the character.
But as the story develops, more missed opportunities just keep flying by. We see some grisly photos and apparitions of those who died in room 1408, but never get a real background on any of their stories. The little information we do receive could have been expanded to create a spookier mood.
Later, as Mike teeters on the brink of sanity, the room tricks his wife into coming to the hotel. The threat of someone else he cares about being brought into this nightmare is a scary thought, rife with possibilities that never come to be. Instead, this promising subplot fizzles out like a string of wet firecrackers.
Cusack carries the whole film with a barely restrained snarl and snappy wit. As Enslin’s reality unravels, the actor is able to constantly surprise the audience without relying on showy theatrics. After an initial jolt to the system, the movie feels like it has come to a satisfyingly creepy end. But wait—there’s more.
Especially lately, Hollywood horror films feel the need to explain everything to their audience. Thankfully, “1408” doesn’t do this. The sin it commits is worse, though—revealing the room’s weakness to be so simple that you had probably already ruled it out as a possibility.
By reducing its “monster” and using Mike’s sudden transformation as an excuse to be a cigarette-smoking badass, it lessens all the scary notions that came earlier in the film. Why does every supernatural being in horror movies suddenly crumble when the main character musters up just enough courage to talk tough? Enslin has a sudden revelation about a deep flaw in his character, but his redemption feels forced. What’s worse, the movie ends on a clichéd “real-or-not?” moment we’ve seen a hundred times before.
A disappointing wrap-up can leave you with a bad taste in your mouth. Trying hard not to forget the good moments earlier in the film, I still walked out of “1408” feeling like I had swallowed a bug.