When it comes to horror, nothing's scarier than the Carpenters. Of all the high- and low-tech terrors on parade in the new Stephen King adaptation 1408, none are as chilling as the dulcet tones of Wonder Bread-white sibs Karen and Richard, blaring repeatedly from a hotel clock-radio: "We've only just begun," they croon over and over and over, until the din of the song becomes a deafening ringing in our ears. Never has a snooze button been so actively cruel.
In fact, that chorus becomes something of an invitation to hell for the movie's hero, a ye-of-no-faith author named Mike Enslin (John Cusack). This being a Stephen King story, Enslin is of course a cynic, a washed-up loner whose Great American Novel aspirations have been given up in favor of an easy gig writing goth travel guides to the "10 Spookiest Hotels in America." An extended prologue and the obligatory anonymous postcard leads him to The Dolphin, a posh Manhattan palace that seems stuck in another time, either 1933 (judging by the decor) or 1970 (judging by the radio).
After a convincingly stern, ominous warning from a dapper manager played by Samuel Jackson undisputedly the successor to James Earl Jones' throne when it comes to stern, ominous warnings Mike checks in to the offending room number of the film's title, and begins what may very well be the last night of his life. The next 60 minutes of the movie are helpfully counted down on the creepy clock-radio, as Mike is subjected to any one of a number of Dalí-esque visions usually attributed to brown acid: melting telephone receivers, brick walls where windows should be and the specter of his glum, saucer-eyed daughter, who died a year prior.
The Shining it ain't. But if director Mikael Håfström who last attempted to turn Jennifer Aniston into a femme fatale in the ludicrous guilty pleasure Derailed isn't exactly a Kubrick when it comes to atmosphere, he has at least a few cool tricks up his sleeve. Some are simple and elegant, like the movie's distorted sound design and evocative lighting. Others like the superimposed shots of Jackson materializing in the minibar are admirably arty but inarguably cheesy. It's hard to tell whether the insistent, sledgehammer-blunt editing was Håfström's choice or a quickie hack job performed in order to get the rating down to a teen-friendly PG-13, but either way, it renders the screenplay's countless "Is it all in my head?" false climaxes dramatically impotent.
Ultimately, 1408 is a one-man show, and Cusack mostly delivers. To see the former boombox-toting wiseass in full-on freak-out mode is genuinely disarming. Amid all the special effects and stock horror moments, he's still able to keep the movie just this side of exploitation. King's use of a dead little girl to create some quick backstory is cheap and facile; but when all the psychedelic dust settles and Mike is given a moment alone with her, you're reminded of just how powerful schlock can be when it's redeemed by top-grade acting.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.