Haunted Room 1408 has a scary body count

Posted: June 22, 2007

Who knew Karen Carpenter was scary?

In 1408, a Stephen King spookfest set in a seriously poltergeisted hotel, the clock radio keeps clicking on the same old song. It's the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun," over and over and over.

Even when travel writer Mike Enslin (John Cusack) yanks the cord from the wall, the tune keeps playing.

It's enough to make you scream.

An entertainingly hairy paranormal affair based on a King short story, and directed by Swede-gone-Hollywood Mikael Håfström (the Jennifer Aniston/Clive Owen thriller, Derailed), sets up its star - and its audience - for a blood-curdling, bone-chilling night of horror.

After a while, the horror turns to hooey. But as fright flick aficionados know too well, it's hard to sustain this stuff, and Håfström and Cusack give it a good run.

The premise is simple: Enslin, a once-promising novelist scarred by personal tragedy, checks into New York's Dolphin Hotel. He writes guidebooks about putatively haunted hospitality spots, and legend has it that the Dolphin's room 1408 is ghost-plagued. Guests have been maimed, gone insane, jumped from the windows and drowned in the tub. In fact, no one has survived unscathed for more than an hour within its tastefully decorated walls. Room 1408's death toll: 50, at least.

It's gotten so bad that the hotel's manager, Gerald Olin (a dapper, distinguished Samuel L. Jackson) has barred anyone from staying there. But Enslin and his publisher insist on that room, and threaten to take the hotel to court if he can't stay there.

Let the terrors begin.

Borrowing (or cannibalizing, in King's case) bits of The Shining and assorted spooky motel/hotel yarns, 1408 begins in cheerfully macabre fashion. After a tete-a-tete with the Dolphin manager, Enslin, a professional cynic, retires to his suite for a grand night of drinking and debunking. A few initial jolts are shrugged off as laughable mishaps, but then certifiably weird stuff begins to happen: scalding plumbing, crashing windows, a creepy doppelganger in a building across the way. And then there's that radio, and Karen Carpenter's merrily sinister warble.

In truth, as Cusack's character is subjected to more and more supernatural malevolence, 1408 becomes less and less interesting. The hotel room in Barton Fink, the Coen Brothers' 1991 Kafkaesque Hollywood fable, managed to produce a potent sense of dread with just a few cutaways to peeling, perspiring wallpaper.

Still, 1408 is diverting. Cusack, in a veritable one-man-show, gets to play mournful, funny, reckless, cocky, contrite and scared out of his wits. The effects are well-orchestrated, and the sly humor oozes out like toothpaste from a tube.

Compliments of the front desk.

1408 *** (out of four stars)

Directed by Mikael Håfström, written by Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, based on a short story by Stephen King, photography by Benoit Delhomme, distributed by The Weinstein Co.

Running time: 1 hour, 34 mins.

Mike Enslin................................... John Cusack

Gerald Olin. . . Samuel L. Jackson

Lily Enslin. . . Mary McCormack

Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, gore, creepy-crawly stuff, adult themes)

Playing at: area theaters

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/stevenrea.

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