Stephen King might just be the scariest dude on the planet - not only does he write the most fantastic horror stories you'll ever read, the guy looks like he's just hopped through an express portal from hell to boot. His demonic smile aside, King is the brains behind some of the greatest horror movies ever made - and some of the worst, it must be said - but even most of his half-arsed ideas are a squillion times more imaginative than most other writers' best.
Take 1408, for example. It started life as an entry in his non-fiction book 'On Writing' as an example how not
to write a first draft. King re-read what he had written, realised he was onto something and then finished the story. The resulting movie, though far from his best - that honour goes to The Shining, and probably always will - is a thumping tale that shows it's the simplest ideas that are often the most effective.
Mike Enslin (Cusack) is a paranormal investigator (he's got nothing on Derek Acorah) who travels up and down the US to stay in supposedly haunted locations, publishing his experiences when he's done. When he receives a mysterious anonymous postcard warning him not to stay in room 1408 of the Dolphin Hotel, a cynical Mike reasons it's nothing he can't handle and packs his bags. Despite the protestations of hotel manager Mr. Olin (Jackson) and the fact that 56 people have met a grisly end after staying in the room, Mike enters 1408 and awaits the onslaught. Big mistake - this particular suite features more blood, guts and bile than Amy Winehouse's bedroom.
What's the scariest thing you can think of? This seems to be what the makers of most modern horror movies ask themselves, before reasoning that giant CG monsters and drippy Japanese girls are what puts the shits up us more than anything else. Well, it's simply not true, and the makers of 1408 realise that. The room manifests all of Mike's worst fears - alienation, despair, insanity and more - to put him through his own personal hell: no burping ghosts or tentacled monsters required. There are some great little touches; Mike looks to the apartment across the street for help, only to see a mirror image of himself smiling back; the spirits place mints on his pillow while his back is turned; the arrival of Mike's dead daughter delivering a devilishly cruel last reel sucker-punch. You simply can't wait to see what happens next.
Cusack is predictably brilliant, putting in an effortless performance as a man desperately seeking proof of something he knows he might never find. Sardonic and world-weary, Cusack clearly takes great relish in chipping away at the cracks of his guarded persona as the room throws more and more psychological torture at him - he starts the movie as a chuckling cynic and ends it a gibbering wreck. It's really quite alarming how at ease Cusack is with the weight of the entire movie on his shoulders, and it's testament to his screen presence that it's difficult to imagine anyone else in the role. Samuel L. is restricted to short book-ended scenes but savours every mouthful of his extended cameo, pleading for Cusack's investigator to leave. "It's an evil fucking room," he spits. It is indeed.
Although the premise is slight, it never wears too thin, with director Mikael Håfström wisely recognising the limitations of the short story format. When the action dares stray away from the room the concept wobbles, so get used to seeing those four walls. It's fitting really, because the story's a haunted house tale at heart and doesn't require anything too fancy - like shacking up with a cheap hooker in a moderately priced hotel, 1408 delivers dirty thrills with few frills. Just imagination what Stephen King could come up with if he actually thought he could write properly...