One can only imagine, with horror, what would happen if a guest asked for more towels at the Hotel Dolphin, the locale of the freakily scary “1408,” yet another film that puts “hostile” back in hostelry. While it’s certainly been the season for hotel/motel movies — see “Bug,” “Vacancy” and “Sympathy” — helmer Mikael (“Derailed”) Hafstrom’s take on single-room occupancy is the most cinematically ambitious. For star John Cusack, it’s a perfect fit and, with a little massaging from the Weinstein Co., should emerge as one of the surprise hits of the summer.
An unnerving movie that here and there succumbs to fits of effects mania, “1408” actually manages to combine elements of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit,” “The Poseidon Adventure” and the Carpenters — making them all more terrifying than they already are. More remarkably, perhaps, “1408” refuses to embrace the fashionable elements of torture porn, a la “Hostel: Part II,” that are currently cutting a bloody swath through the horror genre, relying largely on psychological terror to impart the sense of someone possibly going mad, and taking the viewer along.
In Stephen King’s merrily warped world, the most damning thing a character can do is ignore the supernatural writing on the wall. As seen in novels like “The Shining” or short stories like “The Road Virus Heads North,” a character who displays hubris or cynicism, or simply fails to acknowledge life’s mysteries, usually consigns himself to the author’s pile of victims.
Mike Enslin (Cusack), therefore, is the perfect foil for King the moral instructor: A successful writer of popular books about haunted houses and possessed graveyards, Mike scoffs at anything remotely paranormal, but, having lost a daughter to illness, he doesn’t quite believe in anything else, either. Cusack’s charmingly iconoclastic persona helps set Mike up for a lesson in metaphysical manners. By the end of “1408,” he will definitely believe in something.
The Dolphin (which, coincidentally or not, is also the name of a haunted hotel in the Haruki Murakami novel “Dance Dance Dance”) is a luxury establishment on Manhattan’s East Side, a first-rate joint save for one room. Determined to debunk the mystery of room 1408, Mike has to threaten a lawsuit to gain access to the room, where he knows four people have met unlikely ends. What he doesn’t know is that 50-odd people have actually died there, some of apparently natural causes, although the room also once drove a maid to gouge out her eyes. The official diagnosis? It’s an evil room, says Dolphin manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson).
But Mike is undeterred and, once he gets in, finds the room has bizarre shape-shifting properties. While Hafstrom eventually turns 1408 into a frozen tomb that cracks and shifts like an arctic ice shelf, it’s in the smaller details that the creepiness escalates: The closeup of the old-fashioned lock mechanism as Mike inserts the key — the room itself having refused any security improvements — is a little gem of tension-building.
Cusack, given plenty of room to ruminate about his plight and the state of his accommodations, is funny, tragic and moving — as if things weren’t bad enough, his dead daughter Katie (Jasmine Jessica Anthony) pays him a visit, while his estranged wife Lily (Mary McCormack) tries to help him via a computer screen that’s been taken over by the resident incubus. Make that inn-cubus. “1408” is a creepshow that delivers, although viewers may have second thoughts about ordering room service.
Production values, spearheaded by Benoit Delhomme’s excellent cinematography, are indispensable in this tale of illusion and delusion.