For those looking for a get-away where the best surprise is a ghostly experience, Mike Enslin (John Cusack) writes the book of their nightmares. His guides to the nation's best-haunted hotels have innkeepers anxiously inviting him for a night in their establishments, with the hope he will have a paranormal experience during his visit and drum them up some business.
Truth is, the author's works are far more fiction than fact, so when an anonymous postcard arrives bearing an image of New York's Dolphin Hotel and the simple message, "Don't stay in 1408," Mike can't resist checking in to check it out. Arriving at the aging building, he's met by the manager (Samuel L. Jackson), who lays the scare tactics on thicker than usual. Bribing him with booze and penthouse upgrades, he begs Mike to lodge in a different suite. Undaunted, the cocky writer heads upstairs to the floor above 12, and into the room that adds up to a notoriously unlucky prime number.
To detail what happens after the door closes behind him would border on spoiling what is above average scare fare, especially when compared to the teen thrillers dominating today's movie market. However, it is safe to say the film is made with enough skill to be too intense for children and many teens. It may even frighten those who consider themselves somewhat desensitized -- like jaded movie reviewers.
While adolescents are the most willing demographic to throw themselves at this genre, the audience most likely to get the biggest boos for their buck might be adults. As the room begins to demolish itself with all the usual horror movie trappings (walls oozing blood, floors up heaving, radios and televisions suddenly coming to life), we learn more about Mike's past and the grown-up fears that are literally haunting him. Cleverly, the script uses his sense of regret and agnosticism to bring him into a hell of his own making, symbolically represented by the space in which he's confined.
The film doesn't rely heavily on gore, although many images of past 1408 guests are seen in black and white photographs. These former patrons all died through various means, and their blood spattered faces populate the file folder handed to Mike in an attempt to dissuade his investigation. Many other scenes feature extreme situations of fright, such as depictions of ghosts committing suicide (two by jumping from a window and another by hanging). Other concerns are infrequent profanities (including a sexual expletive), as well as cigarette smoking and drinking.
I confess, I'm not the type to go seeking a good scare in a dark theater. Still, I do appreciate the craftsmanship required to achieve a plot that leaves people unsettled, not so much by what they see on the screen but what they feel in their minds. Built on the foundation of a Stephen King short story, 1408 also offers an unexpected positive message about life after death (albeit under the rule of what appears to be an angry God)... but only after you've ridden a very convincing thrill ride.