How is it the words "based on a story by Stephen King" can be just as scary as his books?
With source material that's usually so strong, how can the movies based on it mostly be so weak? "1408" looked like a good premise with a great cast. Then why was it giving off a vibe like a Victorian mansion with its front door creaking open in the wind and a kitty on the front porch that turns out to be eating someone's skull?
In "1408," John Cusack's a once-promising novelist who's now content to travel around to haunted places and write books about how there aren't actually any ghosts in them. He seems to enjoy debunking the superstitions of others, and when he gets a postcard warning him not to stay in room 1408 of NYC's Dolphin Hotel, he can't help but head out to naysay another local legend.
Though Cusack's found a legal way to make them rent him the room, hotel manager Samuel L. Jackson does everything in his power to dissuade him. No one's lasted an hour in room 1408, he says. Fifty six people died in it before they stopped renting it out. Room 1408 is pure evil, he claims; but if anything, that just makes Cusack want to stay there all the more.
Cusack's hardly inside for five minutes before clock radios start blaring and a window slams shut on his hand. He doesn't think it's ghosts, but he does think he's bleeding like crazy and could probably use some stitches. Only the door won't open. He's trapped.
What might have been the manager's pranks quickly steps up to undeniably supernatural shenanigans like glimpses of all the residents who've died within its walls, mummy-things in the ducts, and the horrors of a temperamental thermostat. You know, standard behavior for a room that's trying make you victim No. 57.
I'm not sure what powers an evil room would have, exactly, and I'm not convinced the director does either. I'm a little confused about its motivations, too: was it an ancient Indian burial hotel room? Did the junior suites at the Ritz and Plaza make fun of it when it was a kid? Maybe Hitler sneezed in it back in the '30s.
Without any logic to the room's background or its powers, its attacks on Cusack are just a bunch of random stuff that would suck if they ever happened to you. The tension in a horror movie is built on understanding the dangers the characters are up against. When it's just some crazy room doing its thing, it's hard to get too worked up about Cusack's fate. Why doesn't it just kill him right away? Why all this harrowing weirdness? You'd think an evil room would be all fired up to spill some blood after so many years spent unoccupied. What's the holdup?
Problematically, "1408" is better when it's outside the room. Cusack's attempts to escape deal heavily with the family tragedy that drove him from his wife a couple years ago, and his confrontation of the things he'd tried to forget gives the movie a few minutes of insight into how we can keep on living even when we're burdened down by bad memories.
Far more minutes are spent in that damned room, though, and the room stops being scary right about the time it becomes obvious that it's for real. "1408" has a little too much personality to be boring -- Cusack helps -- but without an anchor for its suspense, it rarely sucks you in beyond the surface.