The world needs more and better scary movies. This is a long-standing and well-known position of mine.

This is why I was initially prepared to cut 1408 all the slack it needed, even though it stars John Cusack; generally speaking, the world also needs fewer John Cusack vehicles, which is an equally long-standing although perhaps less well-known position of mine.

It therefore surprised me that, somewhere just above a third of the way in, the legitimately creepy exposition turns into relentlessly typical "haunted house" boilerplate, and Cusack's performance became the only thing holding the movie together at all.

The plot involves a semi-alcoholic writer who has separated from his wife after an initially-unspecified tragedy, abandoning his promising literary career to write a series of sensational "haunted tour guides," which consist largely of debunking the ghost stories behind haunted places & therefore would probably not be nearly as successful with their target audience as the film implies. Several unsigned postcards send him to the dreaded room 1408 in New York's Dolphin Hotel, even though his unspecified tragedy has long kept him away from that city. Strange and horrifying things happen to him in that room as the clock counts down 60 minutes, and then things end in a predictable way, leaving a rather stunning number of loose ends that you probably won't think about all that much (sample: who is sending the postcards?).

You have more than enough in that paragraph to figure out that this is based on a Stephen King story even if you didn't know that already, and while I don't intend to belabor that, it will give the movie credit for being closer to a success than just about any King adaptation in more than a decade. Because you know what? That first half-hour is damn good: it starts things off with a slow burn, introducing us to Cusack's Mike Enslin and the banal world he lives in, deconstructing the invented boogeyman stories that feed tourism. Then there is one of the great scary scenes of recent vintage, in which Cusack bargains his way into the quarantined room 1408 after a lengthy conversation with the hotel's manager (Samuel L. Jackson, given over-the-title billing for what amounts to a one-scene, five minute cameo, essentially just showing up for the growling, threatening presence that comes along with being Samuel L. Jackson). It's more unsettling than actively frightening, in the way of the best ghost stories, and if it doesn't make you twitch a little bit, you're made of sterner stuff than I.

Then Mike actually arrives in room 1408, and things cool off a bit. It's not that a film consisting of nothing other than John Cusack alone in a hotel room for an hour can't be scary (indeed, I can think of few things more bone-chilling), but not here. Here, after a few decent enough "what's going on?" moments involving mysteriously appearing chocolates and self-folding toilet paper and a radio that won't stop playing the Carpenters (one of the few things more bone-chilling than being trapped with Cusack for an hour), the room starts to go nuts. And that's when 1408 stops trying to be creepy, altogether. Instead, it abruptly switches into the mode of "things jumping out and going boo," or the even more obnoxious "loud things that are panicky and loud."

Throughout, Mike is an intriguing character, the sort of sympathetic jackass that King writes so often, and often so well, and Cusack hits all the right notes in showing this cynic's slow descent into petrified belief. But even before the desperate third act (in which a false-ending is followed by a non-ending, which is kind of neat if you think about it), the things that happen to him are not interesting, and not scary, and not really much of anything besides kind of annoying.