There was every reason going in to believe that 1408, based on a Stephen King short story, would be nothing but a Shining rip-off made on the cheap. The screenwriters are collectively responsible for Reign of Fire, Problem Child 3, and Agent Cody Banks; John Cusack has proven he's not above taking a gig for the paycheck; and director Mikael Håfström's sole English-language film was the dreadful Derailed. Yet it's a surprisingly effective movie—terrifying as it builds tension and heartbreaking as it offers release. Cusack plays a former novelist named Mike Enslin, who, after the death of his daughter and a separation from his wife, abandons all interest in the living to focus on the dead, writing travel guides with titles like 10 Haunted Hotels and 10 Haunted Lighthouses. But in Room 1408 of the Dolphin Hotel in Manhattan, in which dozens of corpses have piled up since the 1920s, he finds his first truly "evil fucking room." The horror wouldn't work without Cusack, who makes what could have been a rote acting exercise—Be tough! Now be angry! Now be defensively funny! Now tough again!—play instead as a cathartic ritual. We're never sure if Mike's losing his mind or saving his soul. More than likely, it's a bit of both.
Head case Cusack.
Opens at Metro and other theaters, Fri., June 22. Rated PG-13. 94 minutes.