1408

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Any film that uses the Carpenters' pop hit "We've Only Just Begun" for scares instead of sentimentality must be credited with a quirky sense of humor. The presence of John Cusack in the cast -- actually, he's almost the entire cast -- confirms the movie's hip, humorous approach to the horror genre.

"1408" is adapted from a Stephen King short story that bears some similarities to his famous novel "The Shining," though it probably won't duplicate the boxoffice success of Stanley Kubrick's film. Like "The Shining," this chamber piece is set in a haunted hotel. Cusack plays Mike Enslin, a jaded writer who traffics in trashy books about cursed locales. Although he plays up to his gullible readers, he clearly doesn't buy into the supernatural trappings that he cynically exploits. But when he checks into room 1408 of New York's Dolphin Hotel, the terrifying happenings quickly turn a scoffer into a believer.

Actually, he turns a little too quickly into a hysteric begginAny film that uses the Carpenters' pop hit "We've Only Just Begun" for scares instead of sentimentality must be credited with a quirky sense of humor. The presence of John Cusack in the cast -- actually, he's almost the entire cast -- confirms the movie's hip, humorous approach to the horror genre.

"1408" is adapted from a Stephen King short story that bears some similarities to his famous novel "The Shining," though it probably won't duplicate the boxoffice success of Stanley Kubrick's film. Like "The Shining," this chamber piece is set in a haunted hotel. Cusack plays Mike Enslin, a jaded writer who traffics in trashy books about cursed locales. Although he plays up to his gullible readers, he clearly doesn't buy into the supernatural trappings that he cynically exploits. But when he checks into room 1408 of New York's Dolphin Hotel, the terrifying happenings quickly turn a scoffer into a believer.

Actually, he turns a little too quickly into a hysteric begging to escape from his locked chamber. The movie might have benefited from a slightly more gradual character transformation, because his character is really the entire movie. Samuel L. Jackson has a small supporting part as the hotel manager who tries to warn Enslin of the dark history of the room, and Mary McCormack has an even smaller part as Enslin's estranged wife, who appears mainly in subliminal flashbacks. Cusack is virtually the whole show, and it's a tribute to his skills as well as to those of the director, Mikael Hafstrom (who previously made the Oscar-nominated Swedish film "Evil" as well as the Clive Owen-Jennifer Aniston dud "Derailed"), that the claustrophobic film remains as effective as it is.

Other films like "The Shining" or the Robert Wise version of "The Haunting" have confined the characters as well as the viewers to a single setting. But those films featured rather spacious, grandiose haunted houses, whereas most of "1408" takes place in just two rooms of an otherwise benign hotel. Hafstrom and his technical team do wonders with altering the dimensions of the suite, introducing all kinds of physical threats -- fires, floods and ghostly apparitions -- within the minimalist set.

Some of these threats are psychological, as well. It turns out that Mike is still trying to come to terms with a family tragedy, and the room seems able to call up his personal demons as well as all the vengeful force of the natural world. Cusack manages to summon deep wellsprings of personal grief along with breezy humor and naked animal terror. It's a tour de force performance that confirms the talents of this remarkably versatile, sometimes underrated actor.

The film also deserves praise for going against the grain of today's grisly, sadistic horror films. Although it's a lot bloodier than 1963's "The Haunting," it's hardly in the same violent league as the "Saw" and "Hostel" movies that seem to be in fashion today. Audiences who wouldn't dream of seeing one of those movies might be tickled by this film's PG-13 scares, though teens who love more graphic gore will find this a little too mild for their tastes.

It's a film that probably falls too uneasily between two schools of terror to be a huge hit, and it's not quite consistent enough to rank as a classic in the genre; while some of the twists in the final reel are clever, others are disappointing.

Even with its flaws, however, "1408" deserves to be appreciated by connoisseurs of acting and bravura filmmaking.

1408
MGM
Dimension Films
Credits:
Director: Mikael Hafstrom
Screenwriters: Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
Based on the short story by: Stephen King
Producer: Lorenzo di Bonaventura
Executive producers: Jake Myers, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein
Director of photography: Benoit Delhomme
Production designer: Andrew Laws
Music: Gabriel Yared
Costume designer: Natalie Ward
Editor: Peter Boyle
Cast:
Mike Enslin: John Cusack
Gerald Olin: Samuel L. Jackson
Lily Enslin: Mary McCormack
Sam Farrell: Tony Shalhoub
Katie Enslin: Jasmine Jessica Anthony
Father: Len Cariou
Running time -- 102 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13
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