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A Waking Nightmare

During his recent stint as a guest columnist for Entertainment Weekly, Stephen King has made little secret of his fondness for “Lost”, the ABC drama that pits the survivors of a plane crash against supernatural forces that are at once thrilling and supremely confounding. This should come as no surprise to fans of King’s stories -- he has always been fascinated by the mysteries of life, the extraordinary phenomena that can’t be explained away with logic or reason, and he has spent his career translating that wonder into tales of the merrily macabre.

Mike Enslin (John Cusack) doesn’t share that wonder. Like King, he is an author who enjoys a good scare, but there the similarities end. A self-confessed nihilist, Mike has lost his passion for pretty much everything, save for his job. He seeks out haunted houses and the ghosts who are said to inhabit them, recounting his experiences in a series of hokey travel guides. Even then, he remains the consummate skeptic -- he yearns for proof of the paranormal, but he can’t bring himself to believe.

Like many of the disbelievers who wander faithlessly through King’s novels, Mike is due for a harsh comeuppance. Lurking behind the door of room 1408 at New York’s Dolphin Hotel is no less than hell itself, and Mike is only too eager for a guided tour. He smugly ignores the warnings of the Dolphin’s seemingly benign manager (Samuel L. Jackson), who informs us that 1408 has already claimed 56 victims, and settles in for a quiet evening. He’s sure that 1408 is a room like any other. He couldn’t be more mistaken.

Like William Friedkin’s Bug, 1408 relies less on blood and Hostel-style butchery than psychological terror. Has Mike lost his mind? Maybe. He is trapped in a tense, claustrophobic nightmare that threatens to consume him, but he is not without options. As the gleefully diabolical hotel operator explains, he can always opt for “express checkout,” but Mike doesn’t want to be victim number 57.

Cusack spends much of the film on his own, playing against walls, windowsills and air vents. Even the alarm clock seems to have it in for him. Entrusted to a lesser actor, 1408 might have come across as melodramatic or absurd, but Cusack keeps it grounded with a performance that is funny at times, tragic at others. Asked to carry the film on his shoulders, with just a little help from Jackson (on hand in a glorified cameo), he strikes the perfect balance.

Though King’s stories have often crashed and burned on the big screen, 1408 is a superior film, and should become one of the summer’s surprise hits. From the start, it builds to a point of searing tension and then rewards us with a payoff that is cleverly executed and genuinely terrifying. There are slower moments that allow us to breathe, but they merely serve as preludes to the next scare. By the time Mike reaches the end of his rope, trapped in a prison that may exist only in his mind, he is frightened and emotionally spent. We know the feeling.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars