Stephen King seems almost quaint in the golden age of the "splat pack," with all this "Hostel" "Saw"-ing going on.
Thus, we spend precious little time with body parts, disembowelings, torture or tanker-trucks full of fake blood in "1408," the latest film taken from one of his stories. The movie is basically just John Cusack facing all manner of spooks, ghouls, ghosts and poltergeists - perhaps all only in his head - alone in an infamous and deadly hotel room in New York.
This is a horror movie for people who read.
Cusack's character, Mike Enslin, a modest-selling author of "true tales of the supernatural," starts out glib - nobody does glib better than Cusack.
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A fan at a book signing: "Where's the best place to go to be sure to see a ghost?"
Enslin: "Sure thing?"
Enslin: "Haunted Mansion, Orlando."
But Mike Enslin can't quip his way out of this. Room 1408 of the old but still swank Dolphin Hotel won't stand for that.
He's been warned. Samuel L. Jackson is the manager of the place. He and Cusack share a long, deliciously played and cleverly written haggle in which the manager tries to talk the writer out of researching his new book by spending a night in the room where 56 people have taken their own lives.
"Frankly, I don't want to clean up the mess," the manager says. Ghosts "don't exist," sneers Enslin. "Even if they did, there's no god to protect us from there, is there?"
Enslin wins. He checks in. He looks around. "It's just a job," he says to his trusty tape recorder. "We don't rattle." Things start to go bump. Karen Carpenter blurts "We've only just beeeguuuun" from the clock radio. Enslin is impressed.
"But where is the bone-chilling terror? Show me the rivers of blood."
King's modest story plays with some of his favorite devices - the skeptic, the "thing" that's possessed - be it a dog, a car or a hotel. The script crosses over into Ambrose Bierce-land, too.
But the frights delivered by "Derailed" director Mikael Hafstrom are pretty conventional - apparitions leaping out windows, boogeymen, bugs. Where "1408" scores and raises the hair on the back of your neck is in the personal ways the room attacks Enslin's Achilles heel - his past, his "history" in New York.
In "1408," hell is where the heart is. That's where hiring Cusack truly pays off. He's great as the wag who quips away, then he suffers for it. He lets us see Enslin rationalize what he experiences. He takes us into his confidence as Enslin tries to outsmart the room. He grieves. He resigns himself to his fate. He is the perfect actor to play the cynic who may learn to see the light. Or not.
Nobody bathes nude in the blood of a victim, as in "Hostel: Part II." There are no power tools, no hacksaws. But quaint or not, this King adaptation chills, and may have you Googling the next hotel you're scheduled to check into, room by room.
4 stars (out of 5)
Cast: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack
Director: Mikael Hafstrom
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Industry rating: PG-13 for thematic material including disturbing sequences of violence and terror, frightening images and language.