June 22, 2007

Movie Review: 1408

Posted in Movies at 8:55 pm by Calico Jack

Stephen King adaptations are always hit-or-miss. For every Misery or The Shining, there are twice as many Dreamcatchers or Secret Windows. In fact, the last good King film was 1999’s The Green Mile — quite a long time for such a prolific writer. However, 1408 breaks that unlucky streak through Mikael Håfström’s assured directing and a strong leading performance by John Cusack, one of this generation’s criminally underrated actors. 1408 is a genuinely creepy psychological thriller that never mistakes gore for scares, yet proves far more terrifying than the torture-porn dreck that makes up so much of American horror cinema.

Cusack stars as Mike Enslin, a second-rate author best known for his travel guides to haunted houses and hotels. Although not a believer in the supernatural, he diligently carries his ghost-detecting equipment to the bed and breakfasts that advertise their particular brand of ghoulish horror, and scientifically debunks whatever paranormal myths there might be after spending a night in each haunted room. Years of traveling around the country in a battered Suburban have left him cynical and jaded; but upon receiving a postcard from the Dolphin Hotel in New York City with the eerie words “Don’t stay in Room 1408” scrawled on the back, Enslin packs his travel bag for yet another opportunity to disprove the existence of the supernatural.

The Dolphin Hotel isn’t so amenable to his request for that specific room; it’s been closed off permanently to hotel guests and most employees. Manager Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson) is quite insistent on this point, as there have been over fifty murders/suicides in Room 1408 since the hotel’s opening in the early 1900s. No one who has stayed in that room has ever lasted more than an hour, and even the cleaning maid who was trapped in the bathroom for a short while mutilated her face and became blind. Enslin is undeterred, however; if there is no such thing as a haunted house, why should he be bothered by how many people have died? Over the protestations of Olin, he enters the room and prepares for a peaceful night with his tape recorder, taking verbal notes of his surroundings and the utterly pedestrian nature of the room.

Room 1408 doesn’t stay quiet for long; soon Enslin is plauged with a broken thermostat, chocolates mysteriously appearing on his pillow, and intermittently faulty electric wiring. Such actions could be contributed to the long-neglected room itself — until the alarm clock launches into a playing of the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” as its radio begins an eerie 60-minute countdown. What follows is one man’s sharp descent into insanity, as ghosts both literal and allegorical haunt his every footstep while he tries to escape his prison. Room 1408 is a malevolent presence, manifesting through blood-dripping cracks on the wall and even a spectral doppelganger of Enslin himself. Yet even with the supernatural evil permeating the room, Enslin’s most terrifying revenants may come from within.

Samuel L. Jackson gets second billing here, but 1408 is really John Cusack’s movie. His performance holds everything together, even when a late second-act development threatens to run off the rails into horror cliché. Cusack is alternately cynical and terrified — and slipping into well-deserved paranoia — but never turns the movie into what could easily have been overwrought acting. And the devastating revelations in the third act not only break his character’s heart, but the audience’s as well. The other strong point of 1408 is its limited setting, as the vast majority of the film is confined to one hotel room, giving the movie a potent sense of desperation and fear as Enslin struggles to free himself. Håfström makes the most of a small set, doing a wonderful job of always keeping the audience aware of spacial distance; this film wouldn’t have worked nearly as well had the entire hotel been haunted. In true Stephen King style, the resolution to Enslin’s nightmare is not necessarily what it seems; and 1408‘s final shot will burn itself indelibly into the audience’s mind as one of this year’s great closing scenes. 1408 is an effective thriller, eschewing cheap thrills to suggest that perhaps that “ghoulies, and ghosties, and long-legged beasties” aren’t what we should be afraid of the most, but rather the personal demons we all carry.


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