The King of Summer: 1408 (2007)
From just one thirty-eight-page-long short story, Mikael Håfström's 1408 creates an excellent 112-minute thriller that grabs hold of you almost immediately and refuses to let you go. Anchored by another great performance by John Cusack and effectively injected full of paranoia, this 2007 masterpiece is jam-packed with all the thrills of a haunted house story condensed into one nightmarish claustrophobic space where you never know who or what to trust.
True life horror author Mike Enslin (Cusack) receives a postcard from the Dolphin Hotel warning him away from room 1408. He receives these type of offers often, cheap hotels claiming to be haunted asking for free advertising in one of Enslin's best sellers. He's skeptical but does some research and finds that more than a dozen people have died in that room. His interest is peaked and his publisher pulls some strings to get him the room that hasn't been lent out in more than a decade.
Enslin is met with considerable pushback when he attempts to check in by the hotel manager, Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson). Olin has attempted to keep the room unoccupied for as long as he could, and for great reason. As he explains, the room is pure evil. It takes over your brain as soon as the doors have closed and your only escape is death. The number of deaths (grisly murders and suicides) has been greatly under-exaggerated and nobody has lasted longer than one hour. Enslin doesn't buy into it and takes his key up to the room where he spends a night in pure agony facing his greatest fears and being forced to relive the very worst of his past traumas.
1408 is relentless. Soon after Enslin closes the door on what may very well be his tomb, the clock radio face changes from the time to a sixty-minute countdown. From then on the film is an onslaught of imaginative imagery and ideas. Before you get too comfortable with one scary sight, it's quickly tossed aside in favor of something new. It'll probably come back later, too, long after you've forgotten about it, to get you all over again, like the hammer swinging maniac that surprises Enslin and disappears, only to reappear much later to take a few more swings. The movie even does something that few films can make not infuriating but here it works; it constantly makes its own rules only to break them. This "more is more" technique sells the feeling of overwhelming dread incredibly well.
The endless terror would be a bit much to handle if we didn't have a compelling lead to keep us centered. Thankfully, that's not an issue, as Cusack turns in one of his best performances. His journey from jaded skeptic to broken believer is compelling all thanks to his full on commitment. Jackson is only on screen for a few minutes, but his scenes set-up the horror we're about to experience. He doles out his warnings with complete sincerity, genuine concern (for Enslin, sure, but more for the unlucky souls that would have to head into the room to clean up the body), and a little spooky mystique. A lesser actor could have chosen to play these scenes with a sense of menace that would have been both too easy and too much.
There are many brilliant adaptations of Stephen King's work, but in my mind, few actually transcend the source material. 1408 is one of those few, and it does so many times over. King's short story is decent, but hardly the type that would keep one up at night. The film takes the politely creepy slow-burn story and turns it into one of the most intense experiences that the mid-2000s had to offer. It beats you over the head with inventive scares until it ends and you're left to wonder what, if anything, actually happened. The only thing you know for sure is that as Olin's last warning emphasizes, "it's an evil fucking room."