Creepy '1408': It's Worth Checking Into

The writing's on the wall: John Cusack as a haunted-house guidebooks author.
The writing's on the wall: John Cusack as a haunted-house guidebooks author. (By David Appleby -- Dimension Films)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 22, 2007

Listen up, all you "Hostels," "Saws" and other purveyors of bloody terror. Think you're lords of the fright market? Lay down your whips, chainsaws and paring knives to watch a truly scary movie. You might just learn something.

It's called "1408," starring John Cusack, and even though it's a ghost story and you traffic in horror, both genres are about manipulating our innermost fears. Unzip your leather masks and settle into your chairs -- the ones without the straps. The movie, based on a Stephen King short story, manages to be smart, funny and terrifying, all in one compelling ride. And moviegoers won't feel as if they want to take a shower afterward.

Grab a bloody notebook. We've got a few object lessons for you.

Lesson 1: All you need is a simple hotel room -- not some pretentious fever dream of a torture chamber -- and a lot of imagination to grab moviegoers by the throats. When Mike Enslin (Cusack), who writes guidebooks to haunted houses, checks into Room 1408 of the Dolphin Hotel, he learns that familiar objects -- the clock radio, the thermostat, the Bible, the phone and a knockoff painting of "The Hunting" -- can become instruments of alarming menace. In fact, you may never look at a household appliance innocently again.

Lesson 2: You can get to your audience by making it care about the characters. Obvious, true, but consider the human lambs you routinely send to the slaughter -- mostly trust-fund babies and party animals who all but deserve their grisly ends. We want them dead. You want them dead. We're almost impatient to take care of business.

In "1408," Mike may seem like a jaded hack who hasn't met a ghostly room or haunted house that ever really contained evil. But he's a man of great sensitivity who has masked his feelings and a painful family past behind that air of detachment. We sense that right away, so we care whether he survives his ordeal.

We also find ourselves attached to Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), the hotel manager who begs Mike not to check into the room. He points out that 56 people have perished in that room, most by their own hand. He seems like a real human being with dimension.

(Casting helps, too. Jackson's a naturally mischievous performer whose slightest smirk can tickle us. And Cusack is one of Hollywood's most eminently likable personalities. We're prepared to follow him to hell and back. Which we do.)

Lesson 3: Have a hidden, higher purpose. Sure, you pretend there's a moral element to your plots, something to the effect of punishing youthful arrogance, but your gore flicks are merely invitations to the spectacle of torture.

In "1408," Mike not only has to weather the scariest room since Janet Leigh stopped by the Bates Motel in "Psycho"; with imaginative CGI surprises lying in chilly wait, he has to enter the darker vortex of his own failings and the tortured past he's trying to forget. The deeper we get into this movie, the more we realize we are entering the character's soul and, in a way, our own.

Lesson 4: There's more to audience laughter than dumb guffaws. Yes, you can force reflex yuks out of moviegoers with a surprise decapitation. Better yet, you can take a cue from Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom (the adultery noir "Derailed"), who has evolved into a veritable conductor of mirth. In his hands, the laughs in "1408" are freighted with a gamut of human response: The laughter of relief after a sudden, loud burst; the nervous chuckle as things get strange; the cackles interrupted by sputters of disbelief .

Even as our mounting dread becomes almost intolerable, "1408" makes us realize how rewarding it is to sit in a dark room full of people, all committed to surviving an emotional ordeal -- not a brutal massacre -- alive. You can creep people out and bring them together in one entertaining scarefest.

1408 (94 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for disturbing sequences of violence and terror, frightening images and profanity.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company