It's based on a short story, not a novel, and so the premise is admirably simple: A guy plans to spend the night in a hotel room where dozens of previous occupants have died mysteriously. The guy is Mike Enslin (John Cusack), a weary, cynical writer of supernatural-themed travel books along the lines of "Ten Haunted Bed & Breakfasts" or "Ten Haunted Baseball Stadiums," or whatever. He has long yearned for genuine contact with the Other Side, but in all his travels, even in the places most famous for being haunted, he has never seen anything real. His life is one perpetual disappointment.
He's intrigued, therefore, by room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel in New York City. Dozens of people have died there over the decades, a few by the obvious suicide methods but many in unorthodox and disturbing ways, some by no discernible self-inflicted means at all. Before the room was finally made off-limits, it was getting to where no guest survived more than an hour in it. Is it haunted? Possessed? Something else? The hotel manager, Mr. Olin, played by Samuel L. Jackson, puts it more simply, as only Samuel L. Jackson can: "It is an evil f****** room." Well said, sir.
So why does he agree to let Mike stay in it? Because Mike's publisher's lawyers find an obscure law forbidding a hotel manager from declining to give a customer a specific room if that specific room is unoccupied. If Mike wants 1408, and if 1408 is not already booked, then you gotta give him 1408. I'm not sure a law like that exists in real life, but hey, I can buy it. Without it, we don't have a movie.
Regardless of how it occurs, Mike winds up in the room and waits for spooky stuff to start happening. Which, um, it does. Fairly promptly. Radios turning on by themselves, mints appearing on the pillow where seconds ago there were no mints, things like that. Mike is unnerved, but he's more excited. Finally! For the first time in his career as a supernaturalist, he's actually encountering something supernatural!
Suffice it to say that the unexplained phenomena get more extreme than surprise mints and unwelcome radio broadcasts. The room is indeed evil, as Mr. Jackson pointed out, and what happens there messes with Mike's mind while it causes high blood pressure and wet pants in the audience. It's good old-fashioned sustained scariness -- not shock or terror, just scariness. The fun kind.
Most of the film is set in this hotel room (actually more of a two-room suite), often with Cusack the only actor onstage. His work is a study in acting technique as he passes from skeptical to rattled to terrified to wild-eyed insane over the course of the story, never failing to be interesting as an actor and relatable as a character. His main scene with Jackson is fantastic, two solid actors engaged in don't-go-in-the-haunted-room! expository dialogue that's juuuust this side of campy. (Three horror-genre veterans are credited with adapting King's story for the screen.) And don't forget, Cusack has a built-in rapport with the audience -- who doesn't like John Cusack? -- which means we're immediately on his side no matter what.
Director Mikael Hafstrom, who previously made the middling American thriller "Derailed" and the well-regarded Swedish thriller "Evil," does a fine job maintaining the suspense and fearfulness of room 1408. He's mature enough to know that louder is not necessarily scarier (dig the unbearably tense moments of silence and near-silence), but impish enough to know that sometimes, yeah, loud is awesome. There are some effectively haunting and frightening images throughout the film.
Hafstrom can't quite overcome the story's slightly disappointing conclusion, though. Stories like this are ridiculously hard to end. A crazy twist might provide a jolt but ultimately make no sense, while a more logical, realistic finale will feel like a letdown. What "1408" needs is something to make the spookiness last up to the final moments, rather than spending the last several minutes in resolution. Then again, I can't come up with a better ending than the one they went with, so maybe I should just change my pants and shut up.