Room with a phew: '1408' OK, with reservations

Posted: June 22, 2007

Fear of the hospitality industry has been a movie staple at least since Janet Leigh checked into the Bates Motel.

In recent months, though, movies seem to be competing to see who can present the worst hotel experience. In "Vacancy," Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale find their room is actually the set of a snuff film, and they are the featured players.

The second "Hostel" is just like the first - a guy going after guests with a power drill. In "Severance" a corporate resort turns out to be an insane asylum where former inmates set upon guests with bear traps, knives and flamethrowers.

Even the light-hearted "Ocean's Thirteen" has a running gag about a hotel critic assaulted with bad service that escalates from unpleasant smells to bed bugs and food poisoning.

His experience, taken to Stephen King extremes, is the crux of "1408," a movie about a cynical journalist who checks into a haunted hotel meaning to disprove its reputation as a supernatural vortex of evil.

The movie is slick and well-cast - John Cusack is the patronizing writer and Samuel L. Jackson is the hotel manager who tries his best to warn Cusack that room 1408 is no hoax.

Director Mikael Hafstrom creates effective atmospherics, and for a good long while "1408" manages to avoid the crutch of F/X - the horror arises from the psychology of Cusack's character (the room forces each resident to confront horrifying aspects of his personal history).

For him, it's the death of his daughter. This puts director Hafstrom in a tough spot - there's almost no way, wearing the straight-jacket of a genre picture, to grapple with material like this without seeming exploitative.

And sure enough, as soon as the kid shows up, "1408" begins to feel less like King's "The Shining" and more like "Pet Sematary," which pulled a similar trick, and it ends up feeling just as cheesy.

No matter how silly things get, though, Cusack stays admirably focused, bringing a weird sort of gravitas to the horror movie disintegrating around him. Cusack, back in his "Say Anything" days, was a real emblem of his generation. The motor-mouthed, energetic, hopeful Cusack seemed to embody it, more so than any of his Brat Pack contemporaries.

As he's grown thicker and older, though, his screen presence has darkened and his face is now full of disappointment, maybe something approaching bitterness.

Someday, the right director and the right script are going to put it better use. *

Produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura, directed by Mikael Hafstrom, written by Matt Breenberg, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, music by Gabriel Yared, distributed by MGM.

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