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1408 Print E-mail
Friday, 22 June 2007
ImageFor years, people have been joking that eventually movies would be made from Stephen King’s shopping lists. This time it’s almost true. King began the story “1408” as an example of how to edit for his book on writing, but he liked what he wrote, and so finished it as a full story. And now it’s a movie, directed by Swedish Mikael Håfström as his second American movie. (His first was “Derailed.”) It stars John Cusack, and almost ONLY John Cusack.

He’s writer Mike Enslin; initially, he was a serious novelist, but changed direction to do a series of popular paperbacks about the 10 most famous haunted graveyards, houses, etc.. They’ve been best-sellers, but they’re disposable junk; when he does a signing at a book store, only four customers bother to attend. Still, he’s working on a new book, “The 10 Most Famous Haunted Hotel Rooms.” He’s a thorough-going skeptic about all this paranormal stuff, and the movie opens with him staying at an inn where exactly nothing happens. After he returns home to Hermosa Beach (south of Santa Monica), he gets a mysterious, unsigned postcard basically daring him to try staying in Room 1408 of the luxurious Dolphin Hotel in Manhattan. (We never learn who sent the card; based on what happens later on, maybe it was the hotel room itself.)

You might notice that Mike is one of the walking wounded; he drinks too much, is short-tempered, and his face looks drawn and tired. (Cusack is aging in an interesting way.) We eventually learn he’s estranged from his wife, Lily (Mary McCormack), who lives in New York; their young daughter Katie (Jasmine Jessica Anthony) developed a fatal illness. One night, Mike goes out for a pack of cigarettes—and never came back. (Those who know King’s own backstory realize this happened to him—his father left him, his brother and his mother in just this fashion. But the movie is not autobiographical.)

He makes a reservation for 1408 at the Dolphin, strictly insisting that it be that room and no other. When he arrives at the deluxe hotel, he’s met by the wry, sophisticated manager, Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson). He tries to talk Enslin into choosing another room, any room, because of the terrible reputation of 1408. “I don’t want you to check into 1408,” he says, “because I don’t want to clean up the mess.” Enslin knows about the many deaths associated with the room, mostly suicides, but he’s surprised when Olin tells him there were many MORE deaths of suspicious “natural” causes.
Still, Enslin persists, and he’s given a key to the room. An actual metal key. The room didn’t allow itself to be refitted with an electronic key card. This allows director Håfström to include an ominious shot from inside the lock as Enslin inserts the key.

The room itself seems ordinary, even drab. Enslin begins dictating notes into his recorder, unworried about what he might face. He should have worried a bit more.

From this point on, the story becomes a barrage of terrors flung at Enlin, first subtle ones—the air conditioning won’t work—and then, as he proves resistant, ever increasing rounds of horror. The walls crack, the windows now look out on blank slabs of brick. He tries to call his wife on the picture phone in his laptop, but is horrified to see his image controlled by the hotel—“he” even winks at himself on his little monitor.

Terrors keep escalating, but this only increases Enslin’s resolve to win out over the hotel room. Then it hits below the belt: it conjures up his dead daughter.

For the first hour, “1408” ingeniously ratchets up the tension, and Cusack is bombarded by special effects. However, these are rarely CGI effects, but instead full-sized, mechanical, on-the-set effects, which works better, especially in this confined space—which, thanks to production designer Andrew Laws and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme never seems cramped.

The movie is also fortunate in having John Cusack as the lead. He’s a great person to spend a couple of hours with—he’s never boring, he’s always doing something interesting, and we definitely side with him, despite his blunders of the past.

But the movie does have problems. We should know more about the room, how and/or why it became haunted in the first place, which might have suggested an underlying reason for all the bad stuff that’s happened over the years. It’s not enough to have urbane Samuel L. Jackson tell Cusack that the room is “evil;” we really should know something about WHY it’s evil. Also, apart from the introduction of young Katie into the haunting mix, there’s little sense of escalation, of building to a climax, which would have been useful. The screenplay by Matt Greenberg and the writing team of Scott Alexander Larry Karaszewski (“Ed Wood,” “Man in the Moon”) is rich with good lines and well-structured scenes, but the movie overall is weak precisely in terms of structure. “1408” should have built to a climax; instead, this thing happens, then that thing happens, then something else happens, then Cusack hides under a tables, then water comes in, then something else happens, etc.

Finally, the movie takes on an exhausting aspect; you become weary of what’s happening, and just want things to come to a blinkin’ end. The result is a film that begins very well, but ends weakly. (The production notes say that several endings were shot, and will be included on the DVD.) Still and all, it’s rare these days for a horror movie not to depend on blood and guts—there’s little of that here—to work its effects, instead relying on acting and the force of fear. “1408” may have to be classified as a near miss, but at least it’s in there trying—and trying invention, imagination and intelligence. Those qualities are rare in any kind of movie these days.

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