Director: Mikael Hâfström; Writers: Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, from a story by Stephen King
With John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack, Jasmine Jessica Anthony
The Weinstein Company
If superstitious people are afraid of a building's 13rd floor, why would they check into a hotel room on the 14th floor which is just the 13th, with a markup? Room 1408 (the digits add up to 13) in Manhattan's Dolphin Hotel is said to have a cursed history: 56 deaths in 95 years, says the place's manager (Jackson, who's billed above the title but is here basically to warn the hero against undergoing exactly the ordeal we came to see).
A reputation for mayhem is just the sort of cachet that appeals to Mike Enslin (Cusack), a writer of spookraking haunted-house exposés. He's come from his new home in California back to his old city, New York, whence he abandoned his wife (McCormack) after the death of their 10-year-old daughter (Anthony). In other words, Mike is your basic Stephen King hero: he has the professional motive and expertise to explode the legend of 1408 as well as the emotional susceptibility to buy into it.
The year's second highest-grossing horror movie (after Disturbia, another guy-trapped-in-a-room thriller), 1408 marks the genre's continuing rehabilitation from lovingly detailed mutilation back to the honorable business of scaring the audience witless with, for the most part, indirection and innuendo. Hâfström, a Swedish director making his second movie in English, knows that a horror film's greatest weapon is the viewer's apprehension: the fear of what's to come. Not the revelation of the boogie man, but the dawning suspicion, then the sureness, that everything in these familiar surroundings is subtly, horribly off.
The picture's first 27 mins. nicely establishes the spooky premise. The next 20-min. passage, documenting the nerve games the room starts playing on its new resident, is a visual textbook in disorienting Mike and the audience. A clock radio snaps on to play The Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" normally a romantic promise, here a mortal threat. (The song has the same repetitive function that "I Got You Babe" did in Groundhog Day a movie that might be the comic, more pensive predecessor to 1408.) Mike finds two wrapped mints on the pillow and, in the bathroom, a toilet paper roll with the standard triangle fold. But as he and we know, they weren't there before.
If Hâfström occasionally overdoes the wide-angle-lens effects and that old, useful cliché, the pointless point-of-view camera, he also gets a lot from a little. One of the moments that chilled me was something far back in the frame that Mike doesn't notice: a whisper of movement that is probably a fluttering curtain, but might be the first furtive hint of the ghostly victims of 1408.
Most horror-movie heroes and heroines invariably try to escape the pursuing monster by running upstairs instead of out of the house, and into a dark closet in a dark room, where You-Know-What awaits. Thanks in large part to Cusack's weary, well-honed intelligence, Mike is not the garden-variety horror movie idiot. He's a natural skeptic and a resourceful investigator. Entering 1408, he asks, "Where is the bone-chilling terror? Show me the rivers of blood. It's just a room."
It's not just a room. (In fact, it's a suite.) But even as it tries to drive Mike nuts, to lead him to his own death, he asks most of the questions, has most of the strategies, that would occur to any sharp moviegoer. Elements I thought on a first viewing were lapses in logic turn out to be essential to the story, as catastrophe follows chaos, and the room reveals itself as the darkest chamber of Mike's mind one he may never escape. "Even if you leave this room," he is told, "you can never leave this room."
This "two-disc collector's edition" DVD provides a commentary track, a couple of brief webisodes with Cusack and Hâfström and a director's cut, eight mins. longer than the release version, that's worth watching at least the last scene. It's an alternate ending that leads Mike to a different fate and provides the film's final shock frissons.
1408 is well-worth a look for many, a second look at home. Only the hardy, or the fool-hardy, will see it on pay-per-view during their next hotel stay.
Next Caligula (1979)