Treading the familiar Stephen King territory of a writer thrown into the horrors of supernatural chaos, 1408 is more Shining than Misery, but Cusack retains the redeeming pathos-inducing personality of the latter’s troubled novelist. Choosing to use atmosphere and mood over blood and guts to increase suspense, Mikael Hafstrom’s thriller admirably shies away from cheap scares and ghostly Ring-like little girls to slowly build a searing psychological terror where the audience might lose their cool before Cusack’s character does.
Mike Enslin’s (John Cusack) tragic past provokes him to seek out the most notorious of haunted houses and other typical phantom hangouts and debunk the existence of such afterlife entities. After writing several less-than-successful “top 10” haunted locale books, Enslin happens upon a postcard warning to stay away from room 1408 in New York’s Dolphin Hotel. Unable to resist, Enslin insists upon staying in the “evil” room that has claimed 56 lives and boasts a foreboding one-hour maximum life expectancy for its occupants. Ignoring the pleads of the Dolphin’s manager (Samuel L. Jackson), Enslin embarks on a nightmarish night of supernatural torment where he must battle impending psychosis, paranormal devilry, and his own inner demons… and he may not last ten minutes let alone one hour.
Perhaps its greatest accomplishment, 1408’s emphasis on atmosphere and setting over blood packets and gore effects keeps it refreshingly new though its premise dabbles in the horror stories of old. Those expecting the elaborately grotesque tortures of Saw and Hostel may be disappointed in the psychological terrors that reign supreme in this haunted hotel room, but just as effective (if not more so) is the steady building of unbearable torment on Mike Enslin’s rapidly crumbling psyche. And through his faltering rationalizations, we too begin to lose our calm. Once the mysterious happenings transform into supernatural disturbances, the likes of which Enslin can no longer pass off as cunning trickery from the hotel manager, he must face his inner demons as well as the deceptive visions brought forth by the hellish room. When the inevitable jumpy scares finally do arrive, we’re so worked up by the terrifying setting and nerve-wracking mental deterioration of our protagonist that we jump even higher out of our seats.
As Cusack’s character changes from stubborn skeptic to mortified victim, his surroundings shift in appearance as well, almost like a less drastic Silent Hill, where the walls crack and bleed and an icy chill blankets the room in frost. The usage of such visual change in setting (especially later, when stormy waves flood the room) helps to keep Enslin a stranger in his surroundings, and therefore the audience as well, even though the film practically takes place all in one small location. The normally static environment becomes an unpredictable location where anything can happen.
1408 is virtually a one-man show, and Cusack embodies the perfect victim and empathetic host to the horrors unfolding. At first he is obstinately confidant in the nonexistence of ghosts and such supernatural phenomena, but as the notorious one-hour time limit counts down (thanks to an unnerving alarm clock with a mind of its own), Enslin realizes just how wrong his assumptions were. An ingenious plot device has him dictate his thoughts into a tape recorder, allowing the audience to participate in his initially logical thought process that quickly deteriorates into a frantic rationalization of the eerie events he witnesses, and ultimately the realization that he will die in the cursed hotel room.
Though infused with plenty of cynical humor, the steadily increasing dread can’t be shaken from Hafstrom’s clever adaptation of Stephen King’s short story. An inspired performance from Cusack keeps the suspense high and the hope of escape low, and the rising fear and paranoia parallel such horror greats as The Shining and Audition (as do the skillful psych-outs that toy with the audience and Enslin). And while our protagonist may be able to talk his way out of being frightened by the terrifying events unfolding (at least for a short while), chances are the audience won’t be able to do the same.
– Joel Massie (www.moviepulse.net)