Confession time: Not only have I read (literally) every story ever written by Stephen King (some of 'em two or three times), but I've also seen (literally) every movie inspired by his books. Some of 'em four or five times. I discovered the man's work around the time I was 13 -- and I devoured his early paperbacks like a junkie devours his drug of choice. I was hooked. All through high school and college and "grown-up" life, if there was a new King paperback out there, I had to have it. Most I liked, some I truly did not, and I few I really went crazy for. And since I'm even more of a movie geek than I am a passionate reader, I'm always pretty excited to sit down with a new cinematic adaptation. (And no amount of Dreamcatchers will ever change that.)
It's been pretty well-documented over the past two decades: LOTS of the movies based on Stephen King stories are grade-A, bona-fide awful. Some of the turkeys had good intentions; some of 'em were low-rent knock 'em offs mounted solely to capitalize on the mega-author's name. But every once in a while ... you'd get something like The Dead Zone or Pet Sematary or Misery or The Shawshank Redemption or Dolores Claiborne or (choose your own favorites like I just did). So yes: this long and roundabout introduction is meant to lead you to the following assertion: The newest King flick is (most definitely) one of the good ones. Save for a few minor stumbles in Act III (and easily forgiven ones at that), Mikael Hafstrom's 1408 is actually one of the best Stephen King adaptations in quite some time.
The excellent John Cusack stars as a cynical burnout of a horror writer. Once a novelist with real promise, Mike Enslin has slipped into a mid-life malaise: With his young daughter dead from cancer, his estranged spouse on the opposite coast, and a career set firmly on 'blah' -- Mike's going nowhere slowly. His current gig is this: He'll visit the most allegedly haunted hotels around the country, and then rate their horrific effects on a 10 Skull scale. His latest book seems to sell just well enough, even if the author's signing parties are mostly empty and populated mainly by weirdos.
But while shuffling through a heap of junk mail, Mike comes across a mysterious postcard from the Dolphin Hotel in New York City. "1408" is the only message on the card, and when Mike makes a quick deduction (1 plus 4 plus 8 equals 13) he finds himself sufficiently intrigued. Although some painful memories make it a reluctant trip, Mike makes his way into New York and demands to be shown to room 1408. The hotel manager refuses ... at first. And that's when the fun begins.
I could go in to all the weird and freak-tastic things that go in during Mike's stay at the Dolphin, but if you've never read King's story then I recommend you walk into this flick cold. It's like a slice of The Shining with a dash of that recent Bug, but it's a pretty nasty little episode of Twilight Zone no matter how you describe the thing. Unlike the Scare & Stab type of horror movie, 1408 is interested in rolling through a catalog of common fears. Poor Mike has to deal with claustrophobia, acrophobia, sweltering heat, bitter cold, loss of a loved one, and... OK, I'll stop there.
But I can tell you that the slick and fast-moving thriller offers one of John Cusack's very best performances. Seriously, the guy's on fire here, and I don't just mean during the "crazy" moments. Cusack brings a sympathetic side to a character that could have been little more than a caustic jerk. There's also an extended dialogue scene between Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson (as a justifiably over-cautious hotel manager) that ranks among the most entertaining two-character exchanges you'll see all year. The still-lovely Mary McCormack pops up for a few scenes and does some fine work as well.
Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom (coming off the sluggish Derailed) approaches the source material with style and confidence. If there's a weakness in 1408, it's not with Hafstrom or his screenwriters (Matt Greenberg and the veteran team known as Alexander & Karaszewski) or the small-but-powerful cast. It's with some herky-jerky editorial glitches that occur in the film's second half. Either someone wanted this movie to clock in around 90 minutes or there were some quick reshoots. All I can say is that after a very sly and smooth hour, 1408 gets just a bit too ... sketchy, and it took just a little bit of juice out of the experience for me. In all other areas -- production design, score, cinematography, etc. -- 1408 is really quite impressive. If it wasn't for the semi-confused conclusion, I might be calling this one of my favorite films of the year. As it stands, 1408 is still an unexpectedly impressive fright flick ... with a brain.