June 28, 2007

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1408 (PG-13)
John Cusack gets some of the worst hotel service ever while spending an evening in 1408, the creepy hotel room that lends its name to this deliciously silly horror movie.

1408 is old-fashioned horror — bleeding walls and murderous ghosts — not the snarky slash-fest that passes for horror in those teens-get-killed-in-their-underwear movies.

Mike Enslin (Cusack) is sort of a spooky travel writer. He stays at supposedly haunted inns, bed-and-breakfasts and hotels, rating the food, the service, the accommodations and the scares. He’s also sort of a hack writer — his first book was a well-written novel but since the death of his young daughter (Jasmine Jessica Anthony) and his estrangement from his wife (Mary McCormack), he’s lost the taste for serious literary lifting.

Mike has his next book nearly sown up when he gets a “Don’t go in room 1408” post card from the Dolphin hotel in New York City. When a little research turns up some tragic history for the hotel, Mike decides it’s the perfect invitation for another spooky locale.

The Dolphin isn’t as happy to see him, however, as the B&Bs have been. When Mike arrives, hotel manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) offers Mike an assortment of bribes to get him to stay in another room as well as a file full of spooky stories about the bloody things that have happened to the people who have stayed in 1408. Mike playfully swats away Olin’s warnings — I’m not afraid of phantoms and ghoulies, Mike says. There are no ghoulies, Olin says in one of the movie’s best lines, it’s just an “evil f***ing room.”

Mike discovers pretty quickly that Olin’s description is fairly accurate. Starting off with little pranks (chocolates appear on the pillow without anyone having entered the room), the room quickly escalates to full-on attempts at killing Mike or getting Mike to kill himself. Though the fears of murderous poltergeists clearly rattle the previously unrattleable Mike, it’s the sudden presence of his daughter’s voice that threatens to drive him over the edge (or perhaps the ledge, which a phone-friendly room-controlled female voice calls “express checkout”).

Parts of 1408 are undeniably silly and the ending is only a little bit satisfying. But Cusack is thoroughly likeable in this role — heavy-drinking sarcastic-sad sack suits him. Samuel L. Jackson, who appears in only three or four scenes but makes his Samuel L. Jackson mark nonetheless, crackles in his sparring with Cusack. McCormack is both normal enough and background enough to keep her character from getting in the way. The effects are a bit cheesy at times but not so much that they take you out of the moment. I don’t know that I was ever really scared — though the movie does a sly job at building up the is-it-or-isn’t-it-evil suspense about the room — but I was certainly delighted throughout.

Horror doesn’t have to be limited to weakly plotted excuses to watch people saw off limbs or hack American tourists to bits. The blood and gore of Hostel II and the like aren’t really all that scary — it’s more “ewww” and “oooo.” Stephen King can write an entertainingly spooky yarn (especially when he keeps it short) and 1408 reminded me that horror mixed with suspense can be a fun, not just gross, time at the theater. B

Rated PG-13 for thematic material including disturbing sequences of violence and terror, frightening images and language. Directed by Mikael Hĺfström and written by Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (from a short story by Stephen King), 1408 is an hour and 34 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Dimension Films