Starring John Cusack (Identity, Grosse Point Blank) and Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction, Snakes on A Plane), 1408 is based on a Stephen King story and everything about the film feels like its been touched by his genius. Touched, I said, not painted or smoldering with brilliance. The actors is really the key that makes the scares work, the drama work, and the touches of comedy that work.
Cusack, given a long line of previous dark comedies knows all about delivering comic lines. But the actor who’s original films leaned more toward teen-beat cynic comedy (Better Off Dead) finally proves how capable he is at touching the heartstrings. When we watch his Mike Enslin grieve for his daughter, we can’t help but grieve for him. Connecting with the audience is something every film should do. That’s what John Cusack does in 1408. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
Mike Enslin, a dark, cynical man who looks like he’s lost all will to live has recently become a specialist in the world of documenting paranormal activity. He goes from haunted house to ‘haunted house’ in the hopes of finding one ghost, maybe proving if there is a God, maybe trying to find something he lost. All we see is a man bereft with grief, hateful of life, and losing his connection with people and reality. None of the haunted houses Enslin’s visited offer a single, true, documentable account of paranormal activity. In his own words, they all probably rated about a 5 or 7 or less. Then, Enslin mysteriously gets an invitation to stay in the Dolphin Hotel in room #1408.
Already the audience is jacked. Advertising alone makes an audience understand what they’re going into. But there has to be one haunted house Enslin visits that doesn’t suck. If 1408 was another joke publicity stunt, how could the story be interesting?
The Dolphin refuses to let him stay in that room – and for good reason, but Enslin insists with the help of his lawyer. Enslin is not a man who likes to be told ‘no’ to. When Enslin reaches the hotel, he’s immediately redirected to the office and company of the manager, Gerard Olin (Jackson). Olin shows Enslin photos and all of the past documented accounts of activity in 1408. He really does not want Enslin to go into that room – maybe just for his own good. No one had gone into that room without suffering some terrible tragedy. Enslin doesn’t back down. Much to Olin’s objection, he allows the struggling writer to see what all the hubbub is about. Now, it’s this element that makes the film good. The duo of Cusack and Jackson is above par. I hope they make movies together in the future. They’re both entertaining and powerful at the same time.
When Enslin walks into that room, I was already in a state of suspense and tension. It may have just been images shown in the previews. It may have been the set-up for this event, but I was holding my breath when that door shut behind him. But, I think the filmmakers knew just how to deliver scares and build this suspense. What sets 1408 apart from say, Hostel Part II is that there aren’t gory or freaky gimmicks. The old style of suspense that greats like Hitchcock created still work just as well if not better than anything that has been brought to the screen since. You need suspense, you need the set-up before the punchline. You need atmosphere. 1408 has all of these things. But the real question is: Is that a credit to the writer or the director or the actors? James Cameron once said, it’s the actors that make the effect work, and I believe that’s what really happened with 1408.
Needless to say, I highly recommend an audience see 1408 and see what I’m talking about. Your hair will be standing on end until the closing credits. It’s truly gripping, truly chilling, and truly effective. After that latest Hostel, it’s a breath of fresh air.