Reel Opinions

Friday, June 22, 2007


While doing some research before reviewing 1408, I was shocked to discover that this was the first time since 2004's Riding the Bullet that a film based on a Stephen King story had gotten the big screen treatment. Most of you probably didn't even see it, since I think it played in only a small handful of theaters for about a week before going to DVD. I remember when there was a time when there seemed to be a King adaptation in theaters every four or six months. 1408 marks somewhat of a comeback to the silver screen for the author after mainly working with television the past couple years, and it's a fine comeback indeed. Director Mikael Hafstrom (Derailed) has created the most atmospheric and downright tense thriller I can think of so far this year. The premise may be thin, and yeah, it doesn't always make a lot of sense. But damn, is it ever effective.

Mike Enslin (John Cusack) used to be a promising author until the untimely death of his young daughter, Katie (Jasmine Jessica Anthony). He walked out on his wife (Mary McCormack), moved to California, and now spends his time writing trashy paranormal novels about the world's most haunted areas. Mike does not believe in life after death personally, and pretty much does the job to pay the bills. He travels the world, doing research by staying overnight at places that are supposed to be haunted, gets some colorful background info that he can use for material, and then moves on to his next job. One day, Mike receives a postcard informing him of an old hotel in New York City called the Dolphin Hotel, which is supposed to have a room that has quite the history. Doing some private research, he learns that the Dolphin has had a long and tragic history of deaths, all of them surrounding the guests that have stayed in Room 1408. Mike books the room, despite the warnings of the hotel manager, Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), who pulls out all the stops, even bribery, to change Mike's mind and keep him out of 1408. Entering the room, nothing seems ominous at first. But then, the room itself begins to take on a life of its own, and begins tormenting Mike with various ghostly apparitions, mind tricks, and even displaying his own painful past before him in various ways. With seemingly no way to escape (the door becomes locked, and the room alters itself so that there are no windows or other means of leaving), Mike must use his wits to save his own sanity before the evil of Room 1408 drives him insane.

1408 is the second thriller set around a hotel released in less than two months (the other being April's Vacancy), and is by far the superior film. The film is actually quite subtle in its way of creeping us out and disturbing us, which is a nice change of pace from the "bash you over the head with gore, when we're not boring you to death with the cheap characters" approach of films like Hostel: Part II. Rather than bombard the audience with ghostly special effects and gore, the movie gets under your skin and goes for a much more psychological approach. That's not to say there are no special effects used at all. The effects used to bring the room itself to life are quite impressive, but never become overwhelming or overpower the human actor in the middle of it all. This is not exactly a "haunted hotel room" story, as it is Room 1408 itself is alive and a very angry entity. As Samuel L. Jackson's character puts it at one point, "It's a f-ing evil room". The screenplay by Matt Greenberg (Reign of Fire), along with the writing team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt), wisely does not even attempt to explain Room 1408. It's just a very evil presence that can somehow look deep within troubled souls, and torture them to death with their own personal demons. There are so many ways this idea could have gone wrong. In the wrong hands, this material could have been laughable, especially when Cusack's character starts hallucinating and having conversations with people that aren't even there. Even though the movie frequently flies into the realm of the unbelievable, it manages to somehow stay grounded.

A lot of this has to do with the fact that the film never loses its way, and become an excuse to throw as many special effects and jump scares into the movie as it possibly can. The human element of Mike Enslin is always at the center of the story itself, and its scares. The movie is built around the fact that he is forced to face his personal demons the longer he stays in his room, as well as try to keep his mind in check as various nightmarish hallucinations are paraded before him. The horror in this movie is very human, as well. Rather than having the hero being chased down by maniacs or vengeful spirits, he is being haunted by his own past, and the people that he has either betrayed or left behind. It's much more effective than the usual characters that have passed as villains in recent paranormal films (usually gray-skinned people with hair over their faces), and it never once becomes heavy-handed or preachy. This is also a tricky balance to pull off. When the room started showing him flashbacks of Mike's own past, I grew nervous, thinking that the movie was going to start hitting us over the head with morals. Fortunately, it never once loses its sense of the eerie, and remains appropriately unsettling throughout. The visions of Mike's past aren't here to teach him a lesson, they're here to scare the bejeezus out of him. I must admit, they do a very good job. This is a very tense movie, blowing every other horror film released this year out of the water. The tension builds slowly and takes its time settling in, but once it does, it rarely lets up.

At the center of the movie is John Cusack, who literally has to carry the movie almost by himself. This is essentially a one-man show for most of its running time, with fleeting apparitions being his main companions. Cusack has long been a favorite of mine since his beginnings in 80s teen comedies, and this is one of his stronger recent roles. He not only has to carry almost the entire film on his own, but he also has to convincingly act like he is slowly going insane without hamming it up, or losing his personality. Any actor can tell you that madness is a difficult thing to depict. Go too far, and you send your audience into unintentional hysterics. Don't go far enough, and you lose them. He strikes a very good balance, and remains believable throughout. Samuel L. Jackson is also notable in his small, but no less important, role as the manager who tries to talk Mike out of his decision to stay in the room. As Mike's ill-fated daughter, Jasmine Jessica Anthony should be applauded for being able to avoid most of the standard "creepy kid" cliches that plague just about every thriller this days. And then, of course, there is Room 1408, which is a character itself. The set designers, combined with the work of the special effects team, convincingly create a living entity out of the set itself. The way it is constantly changing itself, right down to the paintings on the wall, creates an effectively creepy atmosphere that is continuously bizarre, but never so much so that we lose our sense to believe.
1408 succeeds where so many other films have failed in that it is not about apparitions jumping out at the actors or lurking in dark shadows. It digs much deeper for its horror than simple jolt thrills, and becomes an effectively thrilling horror film. It could be argued that the whole thing loses some weight when we apply logic to the story. But seriously, who wants to apply logic to a movie about an evil hotel room that can read your mind? All I know is that for the 100 minutes or so this movie running, I was caught up in the moment, and loving it. When all is said and done, 1408 is a reminder of what horror can do. It can do so much more than thrill us. It can also make us laugh and leave us captivated. Perhaps what's more surprising than the fact that the movie can accomplish all that is that so few other horror films can.



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