1408

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Starring John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson. Rating unavailable.

Unforgettable haunted-house flicks are extremely hard to come by; the only two I can think of are 1963's The Haunting and The Shining. The subgenre of haunted-hotel-room flicks is promising in that the number of hotel patrons passing through maximizes the potential for untimely death and subsequent souls in limbo. More importantly, the hotel-room setting allows guys like John Cusack to study the minibar menu and declare: "Eight bucks for beer nuts? This room is evil!"

In 1408, Cusack plays jaded author Mike Enslin, a specialist in debunking ghostly haunts who sets his cynical sights on Room 1408 (the numbers add up to 13) at Manhattan's Dolphin Hotel. The upscale establishment is managed by the smooth-talking Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), who does his oily best to persuade Enslin from occupying the cursed room, where 56 people have died. "I don't want you in 1408 because I don't want to have to clean up the mess," Olin argues, attempting to sway Enslin with a free upgrade to penthouse digs and an $800 bottle of cognac. But since the stubborn writer doesn't believe in anything but good liquor, he snarfles the booze and defiantly heads up to the 14th floor to see what all the fuss is about.

The tedium of 1408's first half-hour quickly fades once Enslin gets trapped in the suite and tormented by everything from scalding tap water to the ghost of a masked slasher. Through well-paced flashbacks, we're shown exactly how Enslin lost his faith in everything: his only child died at a young age from some godforsaken disease. The film is based on a short story by Stephen King, who, knowing full well what scares people the most, never backs away from exploiting the dead-kid angle.

Derailed director Mikael Hí¥fstrí¶m effectively counterbalances the scenes of throat-clenching sadness and claustrophobic shocks, which unfurl in a Groundhog Day delirium. But things go overboard when the unbridled effects crew turns Room 1408 into a set from The Poseidon Adventure–and, honestly, who really needs another shot of dirty-looking liquid seeping from cracked walls.

Cusack is convincing as the unravelling writer who, hollowed out by grief, must fight to survive a supernatural ordeal. The success of 1408 rests squarely on his Hawaiian shirt–clad shoulders, and he pulls it off. The role, that is. The tacky shirt stays on pretty well the whole time.