Earlier this year I happened upon this movie while channel surfing, and I hadn't missed much of it. I thought "well, it's not October, so I won't be watching this right now. Pff." But I hung in for a few minutes and a little while later I'd watched the whole thing.
This movie is structured like one act that has a long introduction. John Cusack's character is established, some details are discussed, and then it's a long scene with just him and Samuel Jackson, who plays the hotel manager trying to talk Cusack out of staying in the room. He speaks of the room in a very significant way, like only Samuel Jackson can do. And then you're through the door. That first viewing I saw all of his buildup, and after that I couldn't turn away.
I don't know that there's a scary story premise visited more times than this one: the protagonist must spend the night in a supposedly haunted house. When I was in elementary school I remember a lot of anthologies of scary stories crossing my path: thin little books with titles like Tales for the Midnight Hour, either taken out of the library or acquired through RIF. (That's Reading is Fundamental, or, in street lingo, Reading is Fun for Mentals.) At least one story in every one of these books would feature a big spooky house and someone who had to bunk there.
When you're that age, scary short stories can pack a punch that you might spend the rest of your life trying to rediscover, perhaps even going so far as to compete in an annual contest with a bunch of like-minded freaks. What's funny is, the "spending a night in a haunted house" premise rarely generates a movie that even comes close to delivering what you're looking for. Usually they involve a group of people who never ask the right questions or make the right moves. In the original House on Haunted Hill, for example, a group of people are beset by strange, frightening goings-on that generate paranoia that someone in the group is responsible. But after each scary thing brings everyone running into the living room to discuss it, they all say good night and go back to their rooms. Were I in that situation, I would just demand that everybody stay in the living room all night and play Scrabble. Problem solved.
1408 bypasses all the pitfalls of the "haunted house slumber party" plot with one bold move. It's not a house, it's just one room. And it's not about staying in it all night, it's about lasting one hour. And most of all, it's not about a ghost, or a particular murder that took place there. Here's the exchange between Cusack (Mike Enslin) and Jackson (Gerald Olin):
Mike Enslin: [Olin gives Enslin the room key] Most hotels have switched to magnetics. An actual key. That's a nice touch, it's antiquey.
Gerald Olin: We have magnetic cards also, but electronics don't seem to work in 1408. Hope you don't have a pacemaker.
Mike Enslin: [into his tape recorder] General manager claims that the phantom in room interferes...
Gerald Olin: I have *never* used the word "phantom."
Mike Enslin: Oh, I'm sorry. Uh, spirit? Specter?
Gerald Olin: No, you misunderstand. Whatever's in 1408 is nothing like that.
Mike Enslin: Then what is it?
Gerald Olin: It's an evil fucking room.
Yeah, that's right. And this concept is played to the limit by both the script and by John Cusack, who not surprisingly turns out a fantastic performance. He says stuff into his tape recorder about the inherent creepiness of hotel rooms, but 1408 is more about the inherent creepiness of rooms. It's an extension of the whole "what if you're really just a brain in jar, receiving false information?" question, but it's much more interesting. I don't think what Cusack sees are meant to be illusions; it's far worse. The room you're in is bascially your universe. What if that universe hated you? What if it hungered for your misery and death and could change its shape and aspect in any way to make that happen?
Although I'm not going to divulge the plot any further, I will mention two details that speak of the movie's intelligence. Mike Enslin plays much of the intro as a jaded skeptic, carrying with him the resigntion and disappointment of someone who would love to believe in the supernatural but knows better. He's pretty snarky and sure of himself while dealing with the hotel staff. But when a window slams on his hand and he's bleeding, he immediately seeks help. And soon afterwards, when he senses that the room's antics are not a hoax but the real deal, he spends almost no time agonizing over it or refusing to believe it. In other words, the plot is never artificially pushed forward because the main character is proud, or obstinate, or stupid.
This is good stuff. I dug everything about it. As an added bonus, here's the door plaque for the room Julie and Zack and I stayed in at the hospital when Zack was born.