Stephen King gets plenty of guff these days (some rightly) for his less desirable writer’s tics. Overlength, check. Overuse of brand names, check. Reliance on weird Maine expressions, ayuh. These tics threaten to overshadow his genuine talents, most notably his genius for instilling everyday objects with ball-crawling dread. Originally written as a how-to exercise for his book On Writing, 1408 (add the numbers, folks) stands as one of King’s best short stories, a haunted-hotel-room tale that generates maximum unease from its smallest details. While not, strictly speaking, his most claustrophobic story (that honor still goes to the one about the possessed toilet stall), it gets an amazing amount of collar-tightening mileage out of the little things: the strangely soft feel of a comforter, say, or a painting that stubbornly refuses to hang any way but slightly crooked.
Rather surprisingly, the inevitable movie adaptation doesn’t suck, due to relentless pacing and direction that finds some ingenious methods of visualizing the story’s literary whim-whams. Before it finally succumbs to CGI bloat in the last act, it offers up one of the creepiest hours in recent memory, boosted by a central performance by John Cusack at his most endearingly neurotic.
Scripters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood) have kept King’s central premise—professional skeptic catches wind of a lethal New York hotel room, checks in under protest from the manager (Samuel L. Jackson, making the most of his limited time), soon wants to get the hell out—while fleshing things out with a back story that actually enriches the source material. Unfortunately, they can’t quite figure out how to wrap things up, resorting to a big special-effects ending that smacks of studio interference. Still, it would take a serious nitpicker to dispute the genuine sweaty freakout of those first two reels. When it works, it really works, by gorry.