An adaptation of a Stephen King short story originally intended for his On Writing book, 1408 the story worked as a brief derangement of reality utilizing King’s trademark ominous surrealism, repeated numbers and words, 1408 the movie tries to follow suit but it’s hobbled by a hefty 104 minute running time when it only needed to be 90 minutes or so. Swedish director Mikael Håfström and screenwriters Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski do their best to fill the time but the result quickly degenerates into a cliched mess. 1408 quickly finds itself short of material reserving the best fragments of Stephen King’s short story for the end. Hafstrom works his cinematographer to the bone finding new ways to bizarrely light the scene in 1408 and the script desperately raids other Stephen King novels and stories for material. A tear jerker of a backstory is tied on to John Cusack’s character involving a dead daughter and a marriage wrecked by it, but that just drags the story down further.
The best five minutes of 1408 takes place during the confrontation between Samuel L. Jackson as the Dolphin hotel manager and John Cusack’s Mike Enslin and yet all it involves is Jackson’s character reciting the hotel’s bloody history. Nothing that happens until the very last minute of his hotel stay and then the closing scene of the movie even comes close to raising the same chills it does and that is a sad testament to the movie’s lack of scares. Room 1408 the story treated the room as a malevolent and incomprehensible force. In 1408 the movie, the room talks to Enslin’s wife via Yahoo messenger webcam, winks at him and calls him using the voice of a friendly hotel operator.
Where the story focused on Enslin’s gradual derangement conveyed through imagery, the movie throws Enslin into one bizarre maze after another, he screams, he whines but then he bounces back and finally takes down the hotel room in proper action hero style. The room’s powers verge on the silly, it folds toilet paper, it sends the image of a Michael Meyers from Friday the 13th lookalike to run up and frighten him. It showers him with water and blood, raises and lowers the thermostat, cuts off the phone and transports him to seemingly another dimension but somehow can’t shut down his wireless connection. It can however hack his laptop with a duplicate webcam of him. The final lunacy is that the room can delude and manipulate him and make him think he destroyed it when he barely scratched it, but it can’t prevent him from lighting a crude molotov cocktail and setting the room on fire to our relief and his and apparently the room’s, which has been sending him messages asking him to burn it alive. And who can blame it?
Enslin too is a fantastically dim character in the tradition of horror movie figures. He tries to escape the room by climbing the ledge before he bothers to try his cell phone and all that happens only a half hour into his stay. He continues carrying on even well past the point where it’s clear that the room can’t physically hurt him, only play mind games with him. Toward the end the room calls him up to warn him that if he doesn’t agree to commit suicide, it’ll make him relive the last hour of what is basically a bad acid trip all over again. By that point it was a more serious threat to the moviegoers than it was to Enslin.
Throughout it all you can’t help but think of the Simpsons Halloween episode that has the family trapped in a house of evil as Bart demands, “Make the walls bleed man! We own you.” Gore would have been almost welcome in 1408 but the movie is practically PG aside from the cursing which seems more like a desperate attempt to bring up the rating to the point where you might suspect something scary actually happens in it. Despite all its flaws, 1408 might not have been so bad despite its watered down premise of “The Shining in a Single Hotel Room” if it had thrown out the flashbacks and an extended illusion of escaping the room and being in L.A. which every single movie viewer knows is only a Jacob’s Ladder style illusion and focused on the terror. But even when Enslin’s hair is dusted white and he looks like he’s auditioning for Johnny Depp’s part in Sweeney Todd, his fear quickly gives way to a quip or a smirk.
1408 is horrific indeed but only horrifically tedious. It lifts cliches from half the horror movies ever made and has no clue how to properly use them. Its only truly unnerving moment comes in the final seconds as Enslin plays back his tape recording of the time there and that reel playing back is far more ominous than anything that actually happened in the room.