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'1408' harbors a doom with a view

John Cusack checks in, but his demons haven't checked out in the horror flick based on a Stephen King story.

June 22, 2007|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

"Hotels are unusually creepy places," says Mike Enslin (John Cusack), who writes cheesy tour guides of haunted places, into his voice recorder a few minutes into his stay in Room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel. "How many people have slept here before me? How many of them were sick? How many lost their minds? How many died?"

In this particular case, it's 56 -- not that Enslin is counting. He came to the Dolphin to debunk a claim of paranormal evil and instead finds himself trying to talk himself down from the ledge overlooking panic. Based on a Stephen King story by the same name, "1408" doesn't exactly boast the most airtight premise ever devised by man (or King) but a little suspension of disbelief goes a long way once the scary stuff gets going.

Mikael Hafstrom avoids excessive gore in favor of creepy psychological horror, mining midnight terrors like the fear of isolation, alienation, loneliness, anonymity and strange surroundings -- a primal fear of hotel rooms, basically, with which the average solitary business traveler (Enslin is one himself, in a way) may already be intimately acquainted. It's the reason, as he explains in an impromptu deconstruction of the room's decor, for the studied banality of the average guest suite, with its fox hunt paintings and comfy chairs. These things are meant to reassure us that we've been here before, that we belong here, that we're safe.

Naturally, Enslin is anything but. His metier notwithstanding, he's a skeptic with a haunted past. Having abandoned a promising literary career for a more cynical if not necessarily more lucrative one, as well as a wife (Mary McCormack), after the death of their young daughter, Enslin lives alone in an ocean-side apartment in Southern California, where he spends most of his time drinking and surfing. Returning home after a run-of-the-mill trip to a bump-in-the-night bed and breakfast, he gets an anonymous postcard in the mail suggesting a stay in Room 1408. Who sent it we never know -- though we do soon learn that New York is the place where all of Enslin's ghosts and demons reside.

It takes some doing to get Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), the longtime manager of the Dolphin, to allow Enslin to stay there, but in the end he has no choice. (Legal reasons.) Enslin checks into the room that has been closed to the public for decades despite Olin's warnings that nobody ever lasts more than an hour. Soon enough we find out why.

The room's first prank, a bit involving a clock radio, a sentimental love song put to excellent ironic use and pillow chocolates, is the scariest as well as the funniest. Considering that "1408" is essentially a movie about the relationship between a man and a room, the ever more squinty and solid Cusack seems a felicitous casting choice. What evil hotel suite worth its salt could resist trying to rattle that supercilious squint?

The plot falters on some shaky logic -- for instance, if the hotel opened in 1914 and the room was later closed to visitors sometime in the 1980s, how is it that only 56 people have died in it? The ending feels tacked-on and pointless, but Enslin's horror hour is suitably creepy and Kingsian.

In the grand scheme of things, the Dolphin Hotel is no Overlook, but it's no cheesy slaughter motel either.

"1408." MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic material including disturbing sequences of terror and violence, frightening images and language.

Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. In general release.

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