1408 is scary when it’s not trying to do too much. At the beginning of the film, we meet Mike Enslin (John Cusack), an author who writes books about haunted places. He doesn’t seem to take the job too seriously, at least, not until he receives a post card in the mail with a hotel name and a room number on it. “The Dolphin,” it says. “1408.” That’s it. It intrigues him enough to begin researching the hotel and room, which leads him to believe that it’s worth checking out.
He gets to the hotel, and meets with the manager, Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson). Gerald attempts to convince and bribe Mike not to stay in that room, providing him with reason after reason why he should avoid it. Supposedly, 56 people have died in that room, either from “natural” methods, or suicide. This doesn’t dissuade Mike from staying the night, instead increasing his skepticism.
After giving him the key, Gerald follows Mike into the elevator, still trying to get him to skip the room. The elevator is where Gerald stops, because that’s as close as he supposedly comes to the room. Apart from two brief appearances for the rest of the picture (three in the director’s cut) that’s all we get from Jackson, which is unfortunate. Why Jackson was promoted as heavily as he was seems to be done solely for monetary purposes, because he’s in the film maybe 10 minutes total.
Mike gets into his room, and takes his sweet time doing it. He turns the key slowly, pushes the door open without much pace, and then walks into the room cautiously. But then he notes that the room looks just fine, and that he might as well just sit down on the bed and chill out for the night. He lies down, and then the radio starts blasting. And then, when he goes to the window for a breath of fresh air, chocolates appear on the bed. And then the window slams on his hand. Following that, the water in the tap gets scalding hot. And then the room temperature is stuck above 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The room, or someone else, is messing with him.
And then the clock begins to count backward from 60. It was mentioned earlier that nobody has lasted more than an hour in this room. Then things get even worse. Mike stars hallucinating — or does he? He sees ghosts jumping out windows, and then someone with a knife is coming at him. He runs, and then the potential killer disappears. Was he there at all? He notices a camera in the vent system. Is that just another hallucination? Is someone watching him, laughing at what’s going on with him? The camera is actually forgotten about apart from the first mention of it, but it still leaves that doubt in your mind.
All of this is interesting, and it keeps you watching. You’re captivated by what’s happening on-screen, and you want to find out what’s really going on. Is the liquor that the hotel manager gave Mike spiked? What about the chocolate he ate? You don’t know, but you want to find out. So does Mike, but he doesn’t have all that much time for things like that. He just wants to find a way to escape from Room 1408.
1408 works for two reasons. The first is because is because this hotel room is built-up to such great extents, and then the film delivers on those promises. It isn’t something that gives you a lot of time building tension, and then the pay off is unsatisfying. No, 1408 doesn’t play around with that type of thing, it knows that you want thrills, and it fulfills that wish.
The second reason is because of the performance of John Cusack, who has to carry more or less the entire film while being surrounded by special effects and a room that seems to be caving in around him. He pulls it off, and it’s only because of his ever-changing facial expressions, his dialogue to himself, and his body language. He manages to, almost single-handedly, keep us interested in his character, all while he descends into madness. Or does he? Again, you want to find out.
There’s a fresh characteristic about 1408 in that there’s very little blood, no amount of physical torture, but it still manages to be scary. The things that happen to the mind of our lead character are frightening, and there are certain revelations that occur later on in the film that are truly creepy. But then the film has a slightly cop-out ending which was only included to please test audiences. I suggest watching the director’s cut, because it features a better, more fitting ending.
With that said, the final third of the film isn’t quite as entertaining as the first two, because the film becomes less about suspense and more about pure thrills. This is less interesting, because the film is less subtle and more reliant on special effects. It never comes close to being boring or bad, but it’s somewhat less intriguing than how the film opens and the first few things that start to go wrong in the hotel room.
1408 is a very good psychological thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat for the majority of its runtime. Cusack gives a great performance in the lead, and the film’s plot allows us to watch him get put through a terrible situation. It becomes less interesting as it progresses, but it’s still an intense film that will get your heart rate up, so I say it’s worth a watch.