While I readily admit that some hotel rooms I've spent time in were murder, none of them ever tried to kill me. Unfortunately for writer Mike Enslin (John Cusack), room 1408 in the Dolphin Hotel punches his number with a vengeance. With an ominous song blaring from the one-hour clock-radio heralding doom, hot and cold running ghosts, and concierge service to die from, he's in quite a pickle; but, after all, he did insist on spending the night in it.
What is it about writers? Especially depressed ones that have lost a loved one and search for some truth behind that long dark curtain of the night? Enslin's on a quest to find just one ghost, one real moan, one real hint of life beyond the pall. He's so obsessed, he's lost track of his own life, and wife, while spending night after fruitless night searching for hope shining off a ghostly glimmer. I feel for him. I watch Ghost Hunters on the Sci-Fi Channel again and again, hoping for just that moment, that one shining, incontrovertible bit of proof there's more to death than meets the unseeing eye. If and when that moment comes, I hope it doesn't try to kill me, too.
That's the mystery of room 1408: what is the malevolent force residing in that room, driving people to mutilate and kill themselves? In true J-horror fashion, we never learn the answer, but the question is well-illustrated in psychological, not gory, terms, driving Enslin to fight both the room's and his own inner demons. And they keep coming on strong, giving him little respite nor a good night's sleep.
The postcard warning him to stay out of room 1408 is too enticing for him, so instead of heeding the warning, he heads to New York City to the Dolphin Hotel, to insist on spending the night in a room that's killed fifty-six other guests—with one drowned in his chicken soup. The hotel manager, Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), sums it up best: "It's an evil f**cking room."
Not even Olin's detailed scrapbook of news clippings and death photographs convinces Enslin to forgo 1408 and spend the night in the penthouse suite; but it does provide for a chilling, tension-building walk as Enslin peruses it, page by gruesome death page, during his walk from the elevator to 1408. Once he enters the room, and nothing immediately jumps out of the closet, he relaxes a bit and pops open the bottle of high-priced liquor Olin tried to bribe him with; but that lets the spirits out, metaphorically speaking.
And once they're out, hell starts to follow as the room's evil entity makes its presence known by blaring "We've Only Just Begun" by the Carpenters, and fooling around with his turn-down service. When he can't get out of the room, now that he realizes it really wasn't a good idea to enter it in the first place, his hand-held recorder becomes more than a voice recorder; it allows him to vent his fear, his anger, and his thoughts, giving us a front-row seat to watch his mental state go from cocky to scared sh*tless in no time flat.
As the room's temperature shifts from hot to arctic, and the paintings on the wall take on a Night Gallery-style life of their own, Enslin's fear turns to rage as he fights the good fight to leave the room on his terms, not splattered on the pavement below, or, like one previous guest, stitching up his own, self-inflicted throat slice from ear to ear.
Cusack handles the three-sixty mood swing with verve, and his disoriented performance brings us into the room alongside him. Horror is best when served alone, and he proves it by keeping us asking if and how he'll find the way out.
Without lavish gore, director Mikael Håfström increases the shocks by first showing little, disquieting events that rattle Enslin's composure, then increases the assault on his nerves with CGI-enhanced calamities that build in intensity. Gabriel Yared's effective music is mixed in with harsh, discordant sounds and the pleasant-sounding, but tauntingly malign voice on the other end of the telephone, promising more unpleasant room service to come. All of this plays on our nerves, as well as Enslin's.
Never has room service been this bad, or this much fun. In a summer of horror that can too easily become mired in uninspired by-the-body-count nihilistic splatter, 1408 goes back to the old school for its scares. And it works.