You can’t run from your emotions
Mikael Håfström
John Cusack, Samuel Jackson, Mary McCormack
The Setup: 
Man who debunks haunted houses for a living meets his match.

This probably would have stayed off my radar if it hadn’t gotten such a plethora of surprisingly good reviews. They all said it’s a refreshingly old-fashioned ghost story that doesn’t rely as much on special effects and has a great performance by Cusack at it’s center, all of which is true.

Cusack plays Mike Enslin, a writer who goes around staying in supposedly haunted places and writing travel guides about them. Immediately the movie runs into a problem because while Mike is supposedly debunking these places, his guidebooks are said to be “scary” and his tagline to fans is “Stay scared.” So what, is he just LYING in the books and making things up, saying the places are haunted when they’re not? I don’t get it. He also has an earlier novel about his relationship with his father, but he now considers that kind of writing a thing of the past for him.

So he goes surfing one day and almost drowns. This is so out of the blue one knows it’s going to come up later. Then he gets a postcard [from who, we never find out] telling him to stay in room 1408 in the Dolphin Hotel in New York. He tries to make a reservation, but is told the room is permanently unavailable. After a tiny cameo by Tony Shaloub, he gets a reservation.

Then he has a good scene with Samuel Jackson as the hotel’s manager, who delivers exposition on the room while trying to persuade Mike not to stay there. It’s one of those scenes where it’s fun to watch these two actors play off each other. But get your Jackson fix now, because much as his face gets equal space on the poster, he is in the movie for all of ten minutes. This is nearly all-Cusack. Anyway, by now we’ve noticed that the director ha a gift I particularly kind of admire, which is a flair for spicing up fairly pedestrian scenes with visual flair to make them interesting.

So we know the room is haunted, but how is it going to begin? In a very clever way. Mike has his head out the window when the alarm suddenly comes on, and two chocolates have mysteriously arrived on the pillow. Furthermore, the toilet paper that he ripped off has been re-folded into some pattern. I guess I am unfamiliar with the specific name for folded patterns on hotel toilet paper. So he’s slightly rattled, and it’s good. Then he gets his hand bashed by the window—which grew jarring to me as he still continues to lean out the window and leave his hand on the sill—and within a short time he’s had enough and is ready to leave. But the room isn’t ready to let him go. The clock sets at one hour and starts counting down. Then multitudes and multitudes of shit hits the fan.

He is briefly attacked by some spectral psycho. He sees people leaping to their deaths. The room is burning hot. He tries to get out by climbing out the window. Cracks in the wall issue disturbing fluids. The room is freezing cold. He calls room service and gets an unnervingly cheerful voice telling him to use express checkout: i.e. to hang himself.

In here he also starts to have memories of his daughter that died young, and his wife [a very good Mary McCormack] who he ran away from, rather than stay and deal with his feelings. There’s also a brief appearance by his father, who mumbles the tired old line about “As I am, so shall you be.” And you start to realize that this room is a giant metaphor for his brain and he is being faced to deal with the emotions he tried to run away from. After the movie I said to my friend “Well, there was the whole subtext about him having to face his feelings about his daughter,” and my friend said, “Uh, I think that was the TEXT.”

Then there’s a moment when things are really starting to fly apart—the paintings have come to life—and Mike in engulfed in water and wakes up back on the beach after the surfing accident! It was all a dream! I have to say that, despite the movie’s sense of throwing everything at you, I didn’t resent this so much. He reconnects with his wife and writes a whole book about his mourning his daughter, but then—the dream was a dream! He’s still in that room! And the clock starts counting down again, implying that he’ll relive the same hour until he kills himself. There is a funny moment when he picks up the phone and says “Why don’t you just kill me?” and the chipper voice says “Because all guests of this hotel enjoy free will!” and instructs him once more to kill himself.

Then Mike takes the last of his cognac and makes a molotov cocktail, setting the room on fire, causing fire trucks to come and himself to be rescued. This did not sit well with me—in fact, I would have preferred it if it were all a dream. Because the room has shown quite convincingly that nothing he can do will have an effect, and so many convincing phenomena were just illusions, it just doesn’t make sense that this one method would suddenly work. The only reason it makes sense is that we needed a way to end the story and get Mike out of there. And that is just plain cheating. He again reconnects with his wife and learns to deal with his feelings.

It wasn’t a waste, I liked the first few minutes in the room especially, and Cusack delivers a really very good performance, and that’s nice to see. The problem is that after a while the movie was just randomly throwing anything it can at you, and it just doesn’t hold together. Like the knife-weilding psycho or the weird demon-thing lurking in the air vents—what do they have to do with? And by the end, when the paintings are coming to life and the sea washes into the room via the nautical painting, you lose the sense that you are in the hands of a controlled storyteller and gain the sense that you are at the bottom of a garbage disposal.

So, too bad. But it has enough positives that it’s not a waste of time and one doesn’t resent it. Especially because it seems so genial about wanting to give you a good scare using mostly old reliable tricks, it has a robust sense of humor and the performances are fun and convincing. But its lack of cohesion turns it from the nice, tight, unassuming little ghost story it might have been and to a relatively pleasant but forgettable night at the multiplex.

Should you watch it: 

If you want. It’ll hold up fine at home.