1408 (2007) / Horror-Thriller
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violent images, frightening images, and language
Running time: 94 min.
Cast: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack, Jasmine Jessica Anthony, Tony Shalhoub
Director: Mikael Hafstrom
Screenplay: Matt Greenburg, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
1408 is based on the Stephen King short story of the same name, originally written for a collection of straight-to-audiobook tales called "Blood and Smoke". Although the gist of it is the same, like most of the successful King adaptations, a great deal has changed in order to make the story more cinematic, as well as to beef it up to feature length. Family angles are added, the ending is radically changed, and a few curveballs are thrown in. All in all, it captures the spirit of the King work without regurgitating it, so fans and non-fans alike can enjoy it as an effective standalone thriller that keeps you guessing as to what the nature of the nightmarish visions are within the titular room.
John Cusack (The Contract, The Ice Harvest) stars as writer Mike Enslin, who has made a career for himself through a series of non-fiction occult books on places rumored to be haunted. Enslin stays in the places overnight, emerging the next day having seen none of the supposed hauntings that these locales advertise. Needless to say, he has determined they all must be frauds. His latest book has him staying in hotel rooms that are supposed to be filled with spooky sights and sounds, and the most intriguing prospect comes in the form of a postcard for the Dolphin Hotel in NYC, where room 1408 (on the establichment's unlucky 13th floor, containing numerals that add up to the same) has been closed to the public for about two decades.
Enslin flies out to stay in the mysterious room, but the hotel manager, Gerald Olin (Jackson, Home of the Brave), discourages him as much as humanly possible. Although Enslin is convinced that Olin's vehement objections are all part of the act, Enslin begins to change his tune somewhat when unexplained visions do begin to occur. Not sure if the visions are real, hallucinations, or part of a dream he hasn't woken up from, one thing is clear -- he's going to have to get out of the predicament before he becomes another victim of the room's nightmarish power.
After the recent barrage of completely senseless sensory horror to be churned out by Hollywood and Asian studios, it's refreshing to see one actually done with a good deal of set-up and character development before it gets to the creepy visions and gotcha moments. In fact, as directed by Mikael Halstrom (Derailed, Evil), it takes a good half hour (a third of the total running time) to finally get to something remotely considered an attempt to scare. The wait pays off, as we have already bought into the notion that in the foreboding hotel room, strange and horrific things can actually occur that make people so raving mad, they'd kill themselves rather than have to endure any more of its startling, terrifying mayhem.
It would ostensibly be difficult to fully relate to this mostly one-person showcase, as we might never know just what Enslin is thinking and what his internal reactions are to the strange visions without someone else to talk to. King ingeniously provided the means through the use of a small tape recorder through which Enslin would keep his moment by moment observations to the things around him, and his thoughts on just what he was (or rather, wasn't) seeing.
Although Hafstrom's technique reels us in with the proper pacing and tension required, the glue that holds the entire piece together comes through the performance of John Cusack itself. This is one of Cusack's finest performances in years, effective in the wide range of emotions required to take us from a cold, aloof skeptic, to deranged madness in a short amount of time, and still be utterly convincing. There are also moments of more heartfelt occurrences that eventually emerge, and while emotional impact of these scenes are not of primary importance from a thematic standpoint, Cusack lends them the right amount of weight to actually find the tale more enriching than many might have with a less masterful effort.
The black humor, one of King's largest appeals, translates very well. Not only is the use of "We've Only Just Begun" by the Carpenters a very apropos recurring song (a fitting allusion of sorts to Groundhog Day's "I Got You Babe", both blaring out of the alarm clock radio in the hotel room), but it also recalls the untimely death of Karen Carpenter, a singer who mysteriously died, not unlike many who've stayed in room 1408, of natural causes that may have been induced through her own anxiety-stricken behavior.
Although there have been many recent horror-thrillers revolving around people trapped in a hotel, such as a previous Cusack effort, Identity, as well as the very recent Vacancy (echoes of King's earlier work, The Shining, are also ever-present), 1408 avoids feeling redundant by actually giving us more background as to what the motivation of the character is, and why he does what he does throughout. Although the reason for the room's effect on Enslin is subject to eternal debate (it can be read into in several different ways), this gives the film a more multi-layered edge to transcend its simplistic premise and keep us guessing. Is Enslin in Hell? Is he being toyed with by a staff out to make a rep for the establishment? Is Enslin cracking from the repressed memories drummed up from a visit to the place of his daughter's death? Is he suffering from the trauma of a near-death accident? Is Enslin projecting his inner turmoil in Barton Fink-like manifestations on the hotel room itself? All of these angles are explored and never completely dispatched as red herrings, always remaining possibilities until the final scene. And even then, not entirely.
I shouldn't go overboard with praise for 1408, as it will most likely not be on my top ten films of the year list (heck, it's not even on it right now). However, given the fact that worthwhile horror films are few and quite far between, it's difficult to resist the temptation to lavish generous praise when one does come out. 1408 isn't going to set the world on fire, and it is also quite derivative in terms of its story, but at the same time, it is so refreshingly different than the rest of the dumb, dull and pointless horror excursions out there, that it still stands out as an example of how fright flicks should really be done to be effective. It's PG-13, but it never feels gutted for wider appeal, and it also doesn't need any excessive blood and guts in order to get proper scares. Gore-hounds and those who need to feel constantly scared beyond their wits may find it lacking, but fans of macabre experiments like those found in "Tales from the Darkside"/"Twilight Zone"- type anthologies will enjoy its more traditional take on the modern visceral horror cycle.
©2007 Vince Leo