King Phones It In

1408 Running Time 94 minutes Directed by Mikael Håfström Written by Stephen King Starring John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson Sign

Running Time 94 minutes
Directed by Mikael Håfström
Written by Stephen King
Starring John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson

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1408 is the latest product canned by the cottage industry known as Stephen King, but if you go expecting a horror movie, you’ll be disappointed. From the start, Swedish director Mikael Håfström works up a sweat trying to save a reputation damaged by the 2005 Clive Owen–Jennifer Aniston disaster Derailed, undercutting tension by a process of anticlimax, slow camera moves and ponderous music. Alas, it’s a hopeless pursuit, because the star is John Cusack, whose scowling look of permanent cynicism leaves little room for audiences to explore each mystery element of the spooky unknown on their own. He telegraphs it all for them. The director might actually be a perfect match for the overwrought follow-the-dots formulas of both Mr. King’s contrived writing and Mr. Cusack’s one-dimensional acting. He leaves everything for the twist ending, then fails to provide one.

This is the underwhelming story of a hotel room in New York where scores of people have died in ghastly ways. Mr. Cusack plays Mike Enslin, a jaded author of books that debunk haunted lighthouses, unfriendly poltergeists and other paranormal activities, who hears about the blood-curdling events at the Dolphin Hotel, where Room 1408 is always unavailable. Ignoring the warnings of the hotel manager (Samuel L. Jackson), Enslin bullies his way in, confident that if he can spend one night in 1408 he’ll have his next best-seller. The Dolphin is not the Carlyle, but it’s not the Bates Motel, either. Still, its tragic history of hangings, mutilations and suicides both gruesome and amusing (one guest drowned in his chicken soup from room service) in Room 1408 (56 in all) make it an enticing rest stop for ghouls. No one has ever lasted one hour in 1408, but Enslin plans on staying all night. The hair starts to rise on the back of your neck the moment he turns the key in the lock. The thermostat sticks on 80 degrees, turning the room into a sauna. Then it drops to below zero, covering everything in ice. The window slams on his hand. The sink spouts boiling water. When he tries to escape, the door is locked and the key breaks in half. He tosses objects from the window to attract attention, but they disappear before they hit the sidewalk below. One by one, the grim events that happened in the past are restaged before his eyes. He also sees the episodes from his own past in the TV set. The daughter who died young appears in the mini-bar. There’s only one way to get out of 1408—to destroy it.

I went along with the about-face antics of Stephen King’s overactive imagination for about an hour before tedium took over and it was time for an explanation. Final upshot: There isn’t any. Regardless of how long you last in 1408, the logic to which you are entitled never comes. For the final insult, the author and the filmmakers resort to the old cop-out: The only ghosts in Room 1408 are the ones you invent yourself, and everything that happens in there is in your own mind. In a pig’s patootie.

The one-room claustrophobia gives an edge to the paranoia, but to hang the movie’s more conflicted suspense on the leers and grimaces of Mr. Cusack’s face without building any sense of the man’s inner demons is asking for trouble. Like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, he looks more wacky than demoniac, weakening the fright potential even further. The unconvincing final operatics lack the depth the audience deserves for its patience. You leave 1408 haunting yourself.

King Phones It In