The most recent cinematic adaptation of a Stephen King short story was 2004’s “Secret Window,” a moderately satisfying suspense thriller in which Johnny Depp played a reclusive writer who, after secluding himself in a lake house so that he may escape his fractured personal life and concentrate on his latest book, is confronted by a stranger claiming that the writer stole his idea for one his novels, and therefore must own up to his theft — or else pay the ultimate price. In “1408,” the latest King short story to be given the feature-length treatment, John Cusack plays a similarly jaded writer who habitually isolates himself in creepy and distant locales, only this time around, the writer’s past comes back to haunt him in forms far more terrifying than a stranger accusing him of plagiarism.
Cusack plays Mike Enslin, a prickly novelist-turned-travel writer who specializes in books about haunted tourist attractions, namely hotels. (Think of him as the Accidental Tourist for “The Twilight Zone” set.) After receiving an invitation to cover the spooky folklore surrounding the fabled Dolphin Hotel in New York City, Enslin finds himself intrigued by the invitation’s postscript, which cryptically implores him to “not stay in 1408.” Of course, if Enslin didn’t end up staying in Room 1408, the movie would be less about his terrifying encounters and more about the horrors of bad customer service.
Luckily for us — though no so much for our protagonist — the Dolphin’s manager, Gerald Olin (played serviceably by Samuel J. Jackson) reluctantly agrees to let him stay in 1408, but only after Enslin has resorted to pleading and bribing. Once Enslin is inside Room 1408, creepy visions and supernatural phenomena abound, and Room 1408 soon becomes for Enslin what the house in “Poltergeist” was for its terrified residents — a virtual playground for the physical embodiment of every person’s pent-up guilt and fears to run amok, thereby wreaking havoc upon the crumbling psyches of its inhabitants.
“1408” works best when it operates as a cinematic funhouse of nightmarish visions and, as Enslin describes them, “Kafka-esque” scenarios. Director Mikael Hofstom gets a lot of mileage out of the hotel room’s ability to alter its shape and dimensions, as well as its place in the time-space continuum. (Thank you, Doc Brown.) Cusack gives a much more emotional performance than he is typically allowed to in other movies, going from closed-off cynic to emotionally and psychologically disturbed wreck in a very believable and empathetic fashion. Plus, only an actor like Cusack could deliver the classic line, “Let’s Encyclopedia Brown this bitch” and not sound like he’s trying too hard.
Not unlike “Secret Window” however, “1408” is only somewhat satisfying as a whole. Whereas previous King novels have resulted in true classics like “Carrie,” “Misery,” and “The Shining” (which is somewhat similar story-wise to “1408”) and even his lesser-known novellas have produced memorable films such as “Stand by Me” and “The Shawshank Redemption,” both “Secret Window” and “1408” leave one with the feeling that a good short story inevitably does — it makes you want to read another short story. “1408” delivers plenty of eye candy, just not a lot of, well, meat. (You can thank Dimension Films for the film’s teen-friendly PG-13 rating, by the way.)
Even though the true villain of “1408” is Enslin’s own deep-rooted guilt, the movie doesn’t leave the audience with the same creepy resonance that “The Shining” still does even to this day. Nevertheless, thanks to Cusack’s stellar performance and the film’s unsettling visuals, “1408” delivers enough thrills and chills to make its ninety minutes a nice, albeit brief visit.