Stephen King has long been the boogeyman of those who truck with the Enlightenment. Although any writer whose body of work could be described as horror fantasy would obviously not have much use for the triumph of reason and rationality, King particularly seems to get his rocks off raking skeptics over the coals.
Take, for example, King creation Mike Enslin, the lead character in the film adaptation 1408. Enslin's a writer (another King trademark) who serves up cynical fare with titles like 10 Haunted Hotels, 10 Haunted Graveyards, and 10 Haunted Lighthouses — cynical because Enslin (John Cusack) is an unbeliever who goes on travel-writing assignments and cashes his publisher's checks with no expectation that there's ever a real story to tell.
Enslin catches wind of New York City's Hotel Dolphin and its supposedly deadly Room 1408 (the numbers add up). Thinking it the perfect capper to his next book of 10, Enslin goes to the hotel to spend the night, expecting the manager, Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), to be like everyone else: happy for the publicity but knowing there's not anything supernatural going on. Instead, Olin bribes, threatens, and pleads with Enslin to stay out of 1408. Olin's reason: He doesn't want to have to clean up the bloody mess later.
Of course, Enslin checks into 1408 anyway, and 1408 gets its freak on. That's about all that happens in the original King tale, a short story with no real heft. But the 1408 screenwriters — Matt Greenberg (Reign of Fire) and teammates Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and, yes, That Darn Cat) take it and turn it into one of the few pleasant surprises so far this summer.
They've added a whole first act that doesn't suck and have made the story more about character development than scaring the kiddies. Enslin's got some New York-based demons to contend with, and he doesn't believe in God for a reason. Any good King adaptation derives the chills from the characters' psychology, and 1408 falls in step. If the film 1408 isn't on par with The Shining or Carrie, neither's the source material.
Another great decision: The filmmakers spend plenty of time studying what made Enslin, but they don't waste a second on Room 1408's reason for being bad. Olin ends the discussion in a sentence: "It's an evil fucking room." Good enough for me.
1408, like the Hostel movies and Hard Candy, fits into the horror-film style that's being called "torture porn." But it's is a different kind of torture movie. Enslin gets put through the ringer, but Cusack sells it as entertainment mostly by being game and letting the audience know — through something resembling comic timing — that it's okay to have fun watching it: Even though Enslin's being tortured, you're not.
Cusack also earns some praise for shouldering the script, as he's often the only actor onscreen. Much of the movie is Enslin talking out loud. (He's armed with a tape recorder, so it doesn't get annoying.) Cusack, who has always struck me as an actor better suited to ensemble work than leading-man status, is nevertheless convincing.
As horror hijinks evolve and Room 1408 increasingly resembles something other than a hotel room, the film loses some its power. The ship, however, is righted in time for the finale. 1408 comes to the satisfying conclusion that there is no heaven but there is a hell. It's not Bergman, but it's the best treatment that Stephen King's gotten since Hearts in Atlantis in 2001. He should be glad someone gave his story a reason to live.
Opening Friday, June 22nd