In theaters June 22nd
John Cusack as Mike Enslin
Samuel L. Jackson as Gerard Olin
Mary McCormack as Lily Enslin
Jasmine Jessica Anthony as Katie Enslin
Tony Shalhoub as Sam Farrell
Directed by Mikael HÃ¥fstrÃ¶m
Unless the name Frank Darabont is listed next to “directed by” in a Stephen King film’s billing block, let’s be honest, there’s really no reason to get your hopes up. That’s a stance I’ve defended for the last decade…and I’m a King fanatic. A #1 fan. Hell, the man practically raised me from afar from his scenic nook in Maine. And like anyone who has tracked his cinematic works, I accept that it’s an undulating terrain full of masterful highs and abysmal lows. The same can be said for a sub-genre I’m also an enormous fan of: the haunted house yarn. Needless to say, that, too, has also felt its share of embarrassments. That said, the King-“haunted [insert residence here]” combo, as usual, opens the doors to unknown variables. Done right (“The Shining”), they’re resonating bone-chillers; done poorly (“Rose Red”) they’re about as scary as those cheap-o bat-on-a-string gags going “whee! whee!” at a Halloween novelty store. “1408,” while not great, leans more into that “done right” category. It captures the essence of King’s endearing characterizations but sorta falls flat when it comes to goosebumpy true frights.
Going for it is a thrilling first twenty minutes of pure tension, a terrific swelling of suspense that establishes writer Mike Enslin (Cusack), an emotionally weary cynic who recounts his experiences in ostensibly haunted locations; his publisher (Shalhoub), in turn, collects them in a series of best-sellers. There’s an acerbic charm with which Cusack plays Enslin. With a cigarette tucked behind the ear and a tape recorder all but glued to his mouth for narrative observations, his amiable “everyman” quality shines. But Cusack also successfully imbues the role with a sad frustration that originates from the untimely passing of Enslin’s daughter, hence his determined drive to seek signs of the afterlife. Writers Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski and Matt Greenberg’s screenplay juggle this subplot, careful not to deliver a slice of overcooked saccharin ham. They doll out the daughter drama in pleasing increments and know where their bread and butter is: within the eponymous hotel room…with Enslin as the caged lab rat.
Little time is wasted before the scribe is directed to New York City’s Dolphin Hotel, home to the infamous 1408 where multiple suicides and “natural” deaths have occurred. But before the games begin, director HÃ¥fstrÃ¶m, Cusack and co-star Jackson, as hotel manager Olin dispense with an awesome bit of captivating verbal swordplay as the latter attempts to sway Enslin from his night’s stay. Needless to say, it doesn’t work, Enslin takes the room and HÃ¥fstrÃ¶m’s challenge at minimalist filmmaking begins. Where William Friedkin’s hotel room-set “Bug” relied heavily on banter and paranoia, “1408” has only Cusack and his manifested inner-demons to lead the show. There is no Ashley Judd spouting lengthy monologues about being a queen bug. And both HÃ¥fstrÃ¶m and Cusack pull it off to a point. The problem is, the scares only half work.
Like any haunted house flick worth its salt, there’s a reliance on the ol’ groaning walls, creaky doors and blood spilling from cracks in the plaster. There’s also the inspired use of The Carpenters “We’ve Only Just Begun” (previously used for laughs in John Carpenter’s “In the Mouth of Madness”) and a radio alarm clock whose digital face begins a countdown to Enslin’s supposed demise. Prime, familiar King devices, for sure, and not the only ones either. HÃ¥fstrÃ¶m taps a palpable anxiety in a moment that harks back to King’s “The Ledge” too. It’s the small details (note Cusack’s surfing wetsuit early on which reads “Psycho 1” on his shoulder), claustrophobia and the subtleties of room 1408 that yield high impact creepiness. Once it presents tangible ghosties (blah!) striding across the room like scratchy old time silent film actors, however, “1408” dulls its sharp set-up. Still, Cusack’s performance is true and Enslin is well defined enough to keep it afloat. Some of the room’s attempt to crack his psyche are decent but aren’t enough to deliver much more than a happy smirk from this viewer who, like Enslin, feels he’s seen it all.
Akin to the film’s protagonist, I suppose I was hoping “1408” would be an experience beyond the ordinary. For Enslin, the room delivered on its promise, for me, “1408” is almost there. One of the better King adaptations in years, but a rather reliable roller coaster ride through a tormented mind and a malevolent room. Somehow I knew it was all going to be okay by the end, and that’s a feeling that distressed me the most.