Just when you thought it was safe to check into a New York City hotel, along comes Mikael Hafstrom's chilling "1408." Not since Norman Bates terrorized guests at his motel has a paying customer received such treatment during a night's lodging. Although somewhat more cerebral than viscerally frightening, "1408" delivers its share of shocks and frights, and viewers will stay in their seats not to miss the film's twists and swerves. In a cruel blow to fans of 1970's soft rock, listening to the Carpenters' hit "We've Only Just Begun" afterward may stimulate nightmares and certainly will never be the same again.
John Cusack, a cynical writer who has sunk from producing intimate novels to hack work about haunted inns, is lured to a Manhattan hotel where room 1408 is off limits to visitors, because of its long history of inhospitality. With only a knapsack, but tons of baggage from family misfortunes, Cusack insists on a night in room 1408, despite the management's objections. Cusack triumphs over the staff and settles into the chamber's banal decor, which he idly describes piece by piece into his pocket recorder for the intended article. The evening starts to look like a genuine snooze, when the room's unsettling turn-down service, a chorus from the Carpenters, and a radio that begins an ominous countdown unnerve both Cusack and viewers.
Although the "night in a haunted house" routine has been done endlessly since movies began, Hafstrom for the most part effectively plays his audience with an eerie, often jarring, soundtrack, clever cutting, and a minimum of effects. "1408" is a ghost story, not a horror or slasher flick, and, as effective haunting tales have shown ("The Haunting," "The Uninvited"), the unknown, the unseen, and the unexplained are far more frightening than CGI effects. Although reminiscent of "The Shining," another Stephen King adaptation, this film was evidently made on a modest budget. Thus, Hafstrom worked largely with a one hotel-suite set and one mid-level actor. Besides Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson also appears as the enigmatic hotel manager, who warns Cusack about the room, yet seems to know more that he shares. Cusack is fine as always and carries the film effortlessly and literally through Hell and high water. While perhaps not as scary as the premise suggests, "1408" nevertheless provides intelligent entertainment for lovers of old fashioned ghost stories.