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By Pete Vonder Haar | June 25, 2007

The haunted house enjoys a rich cinematic tradition, dating back at least as far as the 1924 silent short “Au secours!” This proud history works almost immediately to the disadvantage of “1408,” the latest movie based on the works of fecund horror author Stephen King, for it’s hard to come up with tweaks to a formula that jaded horror audiences haven’t already seen a few dozen times beforehand. In spite of that, the film’s screenwriters and director Mikael Håfström meet with some success in the scares department, and the end product isn’t wholly derivative.

In “1408,” we meet Mike Enslin (John Cusack), a paranormal journalist who’s built a modest career out of writing travel guides about the country’s most haunted places and the like. He lives alone, and hints are dropped as to some tragedy in his recent past (his young daughter died after an extended illness), a tragedy which may explain his lack of belief in the supernatural or occult. While opening his mail one day, he comes across a postcard from New York City that simply reads, “Don’t go into 1408.” The postcard is from someplace called the Dolphin Hotel, and since Mike isn’t an idiot, he can put two and two together and deduce the room is from this particular hotel and want to check it out, thereby guaranteeing the writer of the postcard is either a) fiendishly clever or b) criminally stupid.

Further investigation reveals the room’s sinister record of murder and suicide, and after Mike goes to New York with the intention of spending the night in the room, he’s informed by hotel manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) that the actual body count is much higher. Olin tries every (legal) method at his disposal to keep Mike out, but the author perseveres, and enters 1408 with the hope of debunking the room’s legend.

The first 45 minutes or so of “1408” are surprisingly effective. Håfström keeps the dread at a steady increase, and when the s**t finally, inevitably, starts hitting the fan there are more than a few legitimate jumps to be had. It’s during the movie’s final act that things really go off the rails, with an extended “ending that’s not really an ending” and a number of plot threads left unresolved (Who sent the postcard? What was his first book about?), which prevent us from enjoying a completely engaging experience.

King is no stranger to reusing ideas, characters, and locales from his own stories, and even if you haven’t read “1408,” you’ll easily recognize elements from his older works like “Christine,” “Pet Semetary,” and one of King’s most accomplished haunted house stories, “The Shining.” But for all the visual trickery and the admittedly disquieting scenes involving Enslin’s dead daughter, we’ve seen a lot of this stuff before. Ironically, the one thing holding the picture together through the red herrings and other goofiness is Cusack.

I say “ironically” because I was completely prepared to come here and mourn the demise of John Cusack’s acting career. Promising turns in “Max” and “High Fidelity” gave way to generic romantic comedies (“Serendipity,” “Must Love Dogs”) and stock thrillers (“Identity,” “Runaway Jury”), leading us to wonder if we’d ever see anything approaching the Roy Dillon of old. Cusack is made to jump through some pretty ridiculous hoops here, but all things considered, he turns in a very capable and – given the circumstances – believable performance.

I bag on so-called “torture porn” a lot, not because I’m squeamish about spilled entrails or needles in eyeballs, but because the s**t isn’t scary. “1408” is a rarity in that it’s a modern horror movie (albeit a PG-13 one) that doesn’t feature decapitations or severed Achilles tendons but still keeps you on your toes in most of the right spots. “1408” isn’t great cinema, but does an adequate job in spite of its flaws.

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