Stephen King makes a good living writing about scary things and places. He also writes frequently about what it feels like to write about scary things and places. In 1408, based on a short story by King, the focus is again someone who writes such tales, but Mike (John Cusack) is depressed about it. The author of cheesy and repetitive travel books (10 Haunted Hotels, 10 Haunted Lighthouses), he first appears on screen driving through a rainstorm. The image is clichéd, his face miserable.
Mike used to write novels, apparently, but lost his capacity for imagining following a family tragedy. That the tragedy — a dead daughter — is also a cliché only redoubles the muck. At the moment, Mike is en route to his latest research project, a haunted inn. Typically, the ensuing and exceedingly wearying sequence suggests, he (barely) puts up with chatter from eager owners/clerks, checks into the so-called haunted room, then spends the night drinking and muttering his depression into his digital recorder. The result will be still another pop-ooky by-the-numbers tome, appealing to unimaginative readers (his disdain for his audience is revealed during a public reading, attended by precious few fans, all dimwitted).
Mike’s frustration and cynicism come to a head when an anonymous postcard writer challenges him to stay in room 1408 at Manhattan’s Dolphin Hotel. When the management refuses to let him, Mike becomes curious, eventually muscling his way in by legal threats (and help from his editor, Tony Shalhoub) and generally obnoxious behavior. Drawn into the dark office of manager Mr. Olin (a very subdued Samuel L. Jackson), Mike scoffs at his earnest warnings. Then Olin gets to the point: he actually doesn’t care if Mike ends up dead or not, he just doesn’t “want to clean up the mess.” It is, Olin says, “an evil fucking room.” It has produced some 56 corpses over the decades — by obvious suicides or seeming natural causes — and Olin has dealt with four bloody ones. He hands Mike a file full of ugly photos of corpses, bloody, contorted, sad.
Mike sighs, again. “I know that ghoulies and ghosties don’t exist,” he says. When Olin finally rides him up on the elevator, he won’t walk down the hallway with Mike: though they do clean it once a month, he says, “We treat the room like it’s a chamber full of poison gas.” Abjuring the “spook-house bullshit” — which he believes he knows inside and out, being a purveyor himself, Mike thinks he’s seen it all.
You have likely seen it all, too, or at least what goes on in this room, if you’ve read or seen The Shining. Considerably more claustrophobic than the Overlook — as it is, after all, one room — 1408 nonetheless deploys the same gimmicks: cracked and bloody walls, babies crying, ghosts in emotional disarray, and flashbacks to distressing personal history (in this case, Mike’s daughter, dead of a disease that makes her very pale and dark-eyed). Mike feels badly about a number of family traumas, including having abandoned his wife Lily (Mary McCormack) in order to drown his misery in sad-sack drinking, beach-bumming, and lazy writing.
The room locks Mike inside it and then proceeds to bring all his roiling emotions to the surface. Just when he’s convinced himself that nothing will happen, the room offers up a very neat and perverse trick: the clock radio’s auto-turn-on blasts the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” (it will do this repeatedly, as the scare begins again and again). Mike is at first impressed, assuming the “hideous Mr. Olin” has engineered the scare. “Finally,” Mike says, “I’ve got something to write about, a ghost that offers turndown service.”
He’s considerably less cocky in a few minutes, though, as the film begins to lapse into more overt creepiness, and eventually, full-on assaults on Mike. The literalness of such “haunting” is tedious: a window smashes his hand, the room turns hot and cold, the walls collapse, the room changes temporal dimensions. And then, the ghosts: a man and then a woman appear in see-through form in old-timey clothing, cross the room and throw themselves out the window. Some ugly-face specter comes up behind Mike and tries to stab, cleave, or maybe just maul him. And a baby starts crying in the next room, just before the walls crack and bleed. “It’s not that what I’m seeing isn’t real,” he gasps into the recorder, “It just ain’t as real as it seems.”
And then, reality TV. The hotel room TV shows a home video of the once happy family, Mike, Lily, and the about-to-be-dead-girl (Jasmine Jessica Anthony) posing questions of faith: “Will God be there?” Mike can’t do the God thing, as he’s feeling abandoned by anyone who would “do this.” And so he and Lily argue, he feels guilty, and now he’s got to relive the whole thing — not as memory but as video, which does seem unduly harsh.
The smaller moments are more effective. When Mike looks out his window to a room across the street, hoping to signal for help, Mike sees a mirror version of himself, dressed differently, unspeaking, apparently from another time. Unable to communicate with himself, Mike discovers he is, after all, quite stunningly alone. Such moments grant Cusack a chance to disintegrate subtly rather than raging about in a spooky-horror-filmy fashion, and he takes full advantage of the opportunity.