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John Cusack is a dependably appealing actor. He doesn't possess movie star good looks but is attractive, isn't smooth but remains charming, and is complex without being neurotic. In "1408," a film based on a Stephen King short story, he brings his unconventional hero persona to a film that is marketed, more or less, as a horror film. Cusack plays Mike Enslin, a faithless fiction writer whose latest project involves debunking the paranormal myths surrounding a room in a New York City hotel.
Over the decades, 56 of the room's guests are reported to have met highly unusual deaths. Hotel manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) attempts to dissuade Enslin from checking in to the off-limits room. Olin notes how no one has lasted in the room for more than an hour. Unfazed, Enslin checks in and settles in. Soon, a window happens to slam down on his hand, drawing blood. As he washes off the blood, the cold tap water suddenly turns to scalding steam. The clock radio, which serves as the room's dark sense of humor, begins playing The Carpenter's "We've Only Just Begun" and starts counting down from 60 minutes. It's all downhill from here, and Enslin soon comes to experience for himself that this is indeed a cell from hell, a chamber with a temper.
I liked 1408 more than I expected to. It's more surreal and suspenseful ghost story than horror film, and Swedish director Micheal Hafstrom displays some artful effects. The ghosts of dead guests look like they've been shot on grainy silent-era film stock and burnished onto the celluloid. A painting of a schooner at sea comes to life, and suddenly we are watching a disaster film as the hotel suite is caught up in a maelstrom which rips its beams and boards asunder.
As the villain, the room is a character which changes temperature, mood, and gives as well as takes. It implodes, only to reappear again. Enslin shuttles back and forth between the room and reality, shaken and unsure where the borders really lie. Hafstrom does suspense well, but his scenes of Enslin, his wife and their terminally-ill young daughter come off as sentimental and corny. And the final scene is disappointingly predictable. Overall though, "1408" nicely balances and blends a story about internal and external demons elevated by Cusack's fine acting.