John Cusack Brings Stephen King Story to a Boil

Maui Time | June 16, 2007
Adapted from a short story by Stephen King, Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom (Derailed) skillfully helms this twisting one-man showcase in terror. Horror novelist Mike Enslin (John Cusack) is a debunker of paranormal myths. He tackles his latest book project, Ten Nights in Haunted Hotel Rooms, with the been-there-done-that cynicism of a wizened professional knocking out yet another routine assignment. Things get exciting when Enslin reads a news clipping about a mysterious "room 1408" in New York's Dolphin Hotel, where more than 50 guests have perished. With his curiosity properly piqued, our plucky author disregards the earnest warnings of the hotel manager Mr. Olin (snappily played by Samuel L. Jackson), and enters the room with tape recorder in hand. The alarm clock begins a one-hour countdown as walls move and the landscape of the room becomes a demonic presence taunting the author to lose hold on his already loosened sanity. The triumph of 1408 rests squarely on John Cusack's perfectly pitched performance as an unshakable disbeliever repeatedly pushed to the brink of suicide by memories of his own past. Room 1408 presents a psychological, paranormal and physical juggernaut that will curl your insides in knots.

1408 falls neatly into the category of Stephen King stories like The Shining and The Secret Window. A tough guy author becomes trapped in the confines of a place where the laws of physics don't seem to apply. Separated from his wife Lily (Mary McCormack) after the tragic loss of their daughter Gracie, Enslin masks his concealed personal crisis by immersing himself in his work. Here is a man attempting to displace his own reality with other people's imaginary demons to overcompensate for his slipping grip on reason. It's an effective gambit until the demons become real. "We don't rattle" is the mantra that Enslin repeats to himself as the room's alarm clock unexpectedly blasts a Carpenters' song and paintings shift their images. Observing paranormal occurrences is not as prosaic and charming as our protagonist might have imagined. And so it is, for the audience, that the scares we have waited for turn out to be more potent than we imagined.

Unable to escape from the room's door, Cusack's unraveling character puts aside visions of former visitors leaping from the window as he climbs out onto the ledge in the hope of reentering the hotel from an adjacent room. On the surface, it seems like a classic scary movie trope when the hotel's windows vanish and Enslin is left facing nothing but brick, however the visual slight-of-hand works like a magician's trusty card trick. That's us, the audience, stuck on that high ledge. Like the Jack Nicholson character in The Shining, Enslin suffers from a psychosis that his immediate environment exacerbates. Right up until the end of the movie, it's unsure how much of the room-morphing episodes are real and how many are cooked up in the character's plagued subconscious mind.

Special effects supervisor Paul Corbold (Children of Men) metes out the room's slippery descent into hellish realms with a modulated crescendo of violence that gently bruises your psyche before walloping it with a concussive double climax. The devil is in the details, and in room "1408" every nightmare element holds a deeper meaning to the secret of Mike Enslin's mental breakdown that drops him in rough seas within a cracking ship.

John Cusack is such a polished performer that it's easy to forget how effective he can be at creating characters capable of emphasizing extreme emotional and physical states. Here, the actor delivers a tour de force performance that punctuates the survival aspects of the story every time the camera focuses on his pained facial expressions. There is plenty of Freudian subtext that Cusack's character mocks as an invitation to the emotionally cathartic experience he subconsciously demands. You'll have to think your way through this thriller as it twists like the road to Hana, and you'll be on the edge of you seat the whole time.

Rated PG-13, 94 mins. (B+)

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