Mike Enslin, the travel writer played by John Cusack in 1408, could use a better travel agent. Every hotel room in which he finds himself booked is said to be occupied by the ghost of some suicidal creep or a murderous goon who left behind a pile of bodies in the bathtub. Of course that's just how Mikey likes it: dark, dusty, drafty, and doomed, for he seeks the cheap thrills of staying in rooms allegedly caked in dried blood. If the sheets weren't stained at the old bed and breakfast just off the interstate, Mike and the readers of his travel guides — 10 Haunted Hotels, 10 Haunted Lighthouses — would be terribly disappointed.
Mike wasn't always a ghoulish hack; we learn early on in this adaptation of a Stephen King short story that he was once a writer of serious, sincere fiction, notably a hard-to-find book called The Long Road Home about the relationship between a father and child. But there is a reason he has dropped such endeavors: Mike's daughter, Gracie (Jasmine Jessica Anthony), died of an unspecified illness; he and his wife, Lilly (Mary McCormack), separated; and he has abandoned all interest in the living to focus on the dead, in which there's better money to be made. People, he explains, will always want to "get a glimpse of that elusive light at the end of the tunnel." Suckers.
For all intents, Mike is kind of the walking dead — a shell and a cynic so battered by Gracie's death he believes in nothing, spouting into his ubiquitous tape recorder contemptuous aphorisms intended to defend his position that nothing matters. (The recorder is also a convenient plot device, because Cusack is left alone for most of the film.) When, after his own near-death experience on a surfboard, he receives a postcard informing him of a Room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel in Manhattan, he believes it's yet one more empty promise of creaky floors and moldy tubs. But in the end, 1408 proves to be the hell he never believed in — a room in which dozens of corpses have piled up since the 1920s, now off-limits to all comers thanks to the guardianship of hotel manager Mr. Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), who damns it as "an evil fucking room."
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There was every reason going in to believe 1408 would be nothing but reanimated Stephen King — a Shining rip-off made on the cheap by the brothers Weinstein. The screenwriters are collectively responsible for Reign of Fire, Problem Child 3, and Agent Cody Banks, and Cusack is not above taking a gig for the paycheck: Ever since America's Sweethearts six years ago, his flimsy filmography has proven surprisingly unreliable — as cynical as Mike Enslin's own body of work. Combine this with the fact that director Mikael Håfström's sole English-language film was the dreadful Derailed, and 1408 seemed doomed.
Yet it's a surprisingly effective movie — terrifying as it builds tension and heartbreaking as it offers release. And it works because King is enough of a humanist to root his terror not in the fantastic but in the grim everyday — in this case, the haunting of a parent by the ghost of his child. Yes, 1408 is a horror story in which the most terrifying things of all are the awful memories that plague us.
The film peddles all the horror movie clichés — walls that bleed through cracks, open windows that are suddenly and inexplicably bricked up, phantom slashers wielding knives, screams emanating from God knows where, the repeated use of the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" — but not without good reason. They are, in fact, essential concessions made to the genre's formula — though to explain why would give away too much about 1408, which suggests that everything Mike experiences in that room is taking place in his head. (It's far more open-ended than the original short story, which King initially wrote as an experiment he intended to abandon.)
And none of this would work were it not for Cusack. What could have been a rote acting exercise — Be tough! Now be angry! Now be defensively funny! Now tough again! Cry, damn it, cry! — plays as it is intended: as a cathartic ritual. We're never sure if Mike is losing his mind or saving his soul. More than likely, it's a bit of both.