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Directed by Mikael Håfström (Derailed) and written by a trio of scripters, 1408 is based on a short story by Stephen King. It’s not nearly as nightmarish as The Shining nor as unrelenting as the similarly themed Vacancy in its scares. But amid a culture of Saw-imitating torture porn, this taut psychological thriller stands out as an instant, mind-bending classic.
The movie begins, appropriately, with a dark and stormy night. Ghost-hunting author Mike Enslin (John Cusack) is making his way in the pouring rain to stay at a rural bed-and-breakfast whose owners claim is haunted. He’s been seeking such places to research for travel books that center on the phantasmagoric—“Five skulls,” he rates the B&B—though he doesn’t actually believe in spooks himself. Until, that is, Enslin checks into the titular forbidden room at New York’s swanky Dolphin Hotel.
The hotel’s manager, Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), strongly suggests he change his mind about going into Room 1408, claiming that 56 patrons have died in there, none of them lasting more than an hour. Olin attempts to steer Enslin away with an expensive bottle of booze and an offer of access to the hotel’s copious files on the “natural” deaths that occurred in the room but haven’t been publicized. “My training is as a manager, not a coroner,” Olin says.
Still, Enslin insists, and Olin escorts him as far as the elevator doors on the 14th floor. The room is initially unremarkable, with Enslin describing its details into a tape recorder with a yawn in his voice. Then the clock radio blasts on by itself—the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” has never sounded so creepy—and the digital clock face scrambles to 60:00 and starts counting down. Enslin gets a little worried.
1408 is a series of freakouts from there, with the writer seeing things such as phantoms jumping out the window, a crazed knife-wielder coming at him, and the bathroom turning into a hospital hallway where his dead father is sitting in a wheelchair. (“Like I am, you will be,” dad tells him with a smirk. Ack.) There are mental games, too: A room-service attendant calls and responds to Enslin’s questions with perky, unrelated answers and later phones again with skin-crawling information about how he can go about leaving. It’s all very “Hotel California.”
Håfström arguably has his main character lose it a little too easily, but Cusack never turns cartoonish as Enslin talks to himself, charges around the room, and in general desperately tries to figure out what’s going on and how the hell to get out of it. King’s story is expanded to include an ex-wife and a dead daughter, details that work well to give the seemingly one-note fright fest layers and keep things chilly. As with the best of King’s work, nothing is overexplained, and the ending is left intriguingly open. Enslin’s mind may get checked at the door of 1408, but yours won’t.