John Cusack is the consummate everyman. He's not Brad Pitt-statuesque, but he's not Steve Buscemi-ugly. This trait makes him especially good at playing characters like Say Anything's Lloyd Dobler or High Fidelity's Rob Gordon who are, as Gordon puts it, "middleweights." As Cusack has aged, so have his characters, which means now that he's turned 40, he's playing older everymen with wives, children and the associated headaches.
In 1408, Cusack plays writer Mike Enslin. Once a talented novelist and devoted father, he'd left his wife and lost his faith after the death of their young daughter. As a result, he's now the overtly cynical writer of mediocre books about haunted places throughout the United States whose fanbase could travel to his book signings in a single car. Despite documenting countless places that were reputed to be haunted, Enslin remains convinced that the paranormal doesn't exist. When he receives a mysterious postcard from New York's Dolphin Hotel warning him not to enter room 1408, Enslin sees an opportunity to pad out his latest book. Despite hotel manager Mr. Olin's (Samuel L. Jackson) warnings that none of the room's 56 previous occupants has ever lasted more than an hour inside, Enslin eagerly checks in. Since this is a film based on a Stephen King story, horrible things befall him.
Above all else, 1408 is the John Cusack show. Nearly the entire film features Cusack in a hotel room. Fans of the actor will be overjoyed, since he's given the chance to run the gamut of emotions. Witness overjoyed Cusack, sad Cusack, freezing-cold Cusack and Cusack overcome with rage. Beyond Cusack, the supporting cast is virtually non-existent. Samuel L. Jackson appears in two scenes and Tony Shalhoub appears in one short scene, neither are really given a chance to do anything but recite their lines and disappear.
One question likely to divide audiences is whether the events in the titular hotel room are real or imaginary. A scene early in the film between Cusack and Jackson plants the seed that the hotel manager may have drugged a bottle of cognac he gives to Enslin. Later, when spooky things begin occurring in room 1408, Enslin wonders aloud whether he's been drugged. Despite being the most intriguing element of the story, it's quickly dropped right after being mentioned.
The second American effort for Swedish director Mikael Håfström after 2005's Derailed, 1408 is an effective thriller full of jump scenes and clever elements. Håfström seems to be borrowing pages from Alfred Hitchcock's playbook, lifting some storytelling devices directly from Rear Window and Vertigo, but he does so effectively. While the script goes off the rails towards the ending of the film, 1408's atmosphere is immersive enough to keep audiences waiting for more bad things to happen to John Cusack.