One of the most striking things about "1408" is the degree to which it provides almost exactly what one expects of it.
Read a certain way that sentence could be seen as a criticism - that the film is predictable and unoriginal. Really it's meant more as an affirmation of the film's marketing as being particularly accurate. Rarely have I seen a film which so accurately delivers what its trailers and promos suggested.
Perhaps the reason for this is the simplicity of the story. John Cusack - in a much stronger performance than the film needs - is Mike Enslin, an author whose specialty is investigating paranormal claims and writing guides about it. He visits sites like graveyards and hotels that have spooky reputations. So far in his career he has yet to actually experience any legitimate ghosts.
After another disappointing, ghost-free hotel he checks his post office box and finds a postcard warning him not to go into room 1408 in New York's Dolphin hotel. Enslin does his research, going through old newspapers on microfiche, finding numerous cases of disturbing suicides in the room. So he flies across the country to New York City. He encounters considerable opposition when he arrives to check in, so much so that he calls upon his publisher to threaten legal action unless he can spend a night in the room.
Enslin's final hurdle to get into the room is the Dolphin's manager, Gerald Olin, played by the definition of badass, the divine Samuel L. Jackson. Olin attempts to bribe Enslin, offering him a penthouse suite and an $800 bottle of liquor. Enslin will not give up. Olin even reveals the true body count of 1408: over 50 people when one includes the non-suicides as well. Eventually Olin relents, granting the skeptical writer the key to the cursed room and warning him "no one lasts more than an hour."
I won't spoil the surprises that Enslin must endure. All I'll say is that "1408" delivers.
"1408" really has many things going for it. The character of Mike Enslin is given some actual substance in a movie in which he probably would not need it. There's an effective subplot about Enslin's dead daughter and his separation from his wife. The haunted room 1408 takes advantage of this Achilles heal, cruelly pushing all the right buttons in its quest to drive Enslin insane.
The movie also moves well and maintains the reader's attention. It's really the equivalent of a paperback novel - not particularly deep or groundbreaking, just an effective, simple, enveloping pleasure.
It's not without its flaws, though. Foremost is perhaps the teasing presence of Jackson. He owns the film for what little screen time he has. For the whole movie I was waiting, begging, dying for him to return.
Its paperback persona is a double-edged sword of sorts. Yes, it's an engaging diversion. However, when it's over there really is not a whole lot to take away from it. It provides its scares and jumps and that's about it. Hence it's rather forgettable and hardly a must-see. ("What movie was it that we saw this weekend?" my girlfriend asked the day after we saw it. "1408" I replied.) So there's really not a whole lot to say about the film.
I'll close this review on a question of correct film classification. This is something of a personal pet peeve. "1408" is not a horror film. A film whose purpose is to scare is not necessarily a horror movie. A horror film generates its scares by horrifying its audience. A horror film must be rated R and it must scare its audience through violence. Horror films work on a primal, animalistic level. "1408" falls into the rather popular category of the supernatural thriller - a genre that has seen plenty of films in the past few years due to the success of films like "The Sixth Sense," "The Ring," and "The Grudge." These films rely more on creepiness and spookiness, placing characters in situation where they must grapple with ghosts and malevolent supernatural beings.
I'm generally not a fan of the supernatural thriller. I've never had much interest in ghost stories, Stephen King books, and his movie adaptations. Yet, in spite of those biases "1408" does deliver, providing a satisfactory cinematic experience.