Stephen King often uses authors as protagonists in his books, which lets him reflect endlessly on the thin line between reality and fiction, and often between sanity and madness. Bringing his works to the screen requires a rare combination of imagination and restraint, the ability to access his frightening psychological spaces while curbing his excesses. But for every great self-reflexive King adaptation like The Shining or The Dead Zone, there are forgettable duds like Secret Window and the new short-story adaptation 1408, which treats the writing process like an echo chamber, ricocheting abstract horrors that may or may not be inside the writer-hero's head. Whether what's happening is real, a hallucination, or something between ceases to matter at a certain point, because the ever-changing rules follow no particular logic, and the bubble bursts on these illusions just as arbitrarily.
Stretching far outside his comfort zone, John Cusack gets stranded in a hotel room with a tape recorder as his only companion, looking a little like the star of a bad Off-Broadway play with special effects. Since his only daughter died, Cusack has been touring haunted hotels and writing books that ultimately debunk any reports of supernatural occurrences. He meets his paranormal match when a postcard beckons him to the Dolphin Hotel, an old-fashioned New York high-rise with a room—1408—that's claimed so many victims that it's no longer rented out. Over the objections of hotel manager Samuel L. Jackson, Cusack agrees to spend the night there anyway, and winds up assaulted by ghosts, floodwaters, unplugged electronic devices, paintings come to life, the wet bar, a rotary telephone, and The Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun."
As much as the room gets talked up as a deathtrap, its menace dissipates rapidly once the effects go completely haywire and the whole thing starts to resemble an amusement-park illusion, cloistered off from the rest of the hotel like a funhouse run by evil carnies. So long as Cusack can dodge the falling lighting fixtures, he doesn't have anything to worry about. He's also given some hope by a giant script loophole that totally severs him from the outside world physically and electronically, yet leaves him somehow able to communicate with his estranged wife (Mary McCormack) via the Internet. (How he plots his escape is equally ludicrous.) In the end, 1408 amounts to little more than a radical shock-therapy session for a man still finding his way after the loss of his daughter. Best to leave him alone with his issues.