Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
July 2007

Room service

Cusack and Co. do right by Stephen King with the chilling '1408'

Dimension Films
Director: Mikael Håfström
Screenplay: Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, based on the short story by Stephen King
Starring: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack, Tony Shalhoub and Jasmine Jessica Anthony
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 34 minutes
Opened June 22, 2007
(out of four)

It's reasonable to assume that any Stephen King-based horror movie is going to completely suck. That's not to say it's his fault, and it's not to say that there aren't exceptions. But for every The Shining (overrated anyway, but that's another story) or Misery or Carrie, there are three Dreamcatchers. There were seven - count 'em, seven - Children of the Corn movies.

And as most people have already noticed, many of the best King adaptations come from his non-horror fiction, like The Shawshank Redemption or Stand By Me. And now comes another in a long line of Stephen King thrillers - and a PG-13 one aimed at teen audiences, no less. A clear recipe for mediocrity. But 1408 joins rare company for King adaptations. Instead of dumbing down or pandering to the supernatural elements, the film takes it seriously and at face value, accommodating both the actors and the story.

Contrary to the advertising - which suggest that the movie pits John Cusack against Samuel L. Jackson - this movie belongs entirely to Cusack. The Jackson character, Gerald Olin - manager of New York City's Dolphin Hotel, home of the notoriously "evil" room 1408 - is there just for plot. For the majority of the film, Cusack is acting by himself, with only the frequent bumps in the night to play off of. (He's having a big year, starring in this, the upcoming Martian Child and the fall's Grace is Gone, for which he might finally land his first Oscar nomination.)

Like many of King's protagonists, Mike Enslin (Cusack) is a writer. He's even been on a few bestseller lists. But he's not the kind of guy who is likely to be invited on Oprah - he specializes in the occult, writing travelogues about the best haunted houses and cemeteries in the U.S., that sort of thing. While his dwindling fan base tends to be made up of true believers - who expect him to be the same - Enslin is a fake, of sorts. He'd admit as much. He doesn't believe any of what he's peddling. He's a joyless, worn-down cynic and travels far and wide finding the scariest hotspots in the country simply because he can make a lot of money by doing so.

Part of his cynicism may stem from the recent death of his young daughter, but aside from that . . . well, maybe he's just been doing this too long. He wrote a real book some years back - something more personal - but it flopped. He's turned his back on that kind of stuff since then.

When he gets an invitation to New York's historic Dolphin hotel - with a subtle warning to avoid room 1408 - he figures it's just another job. Gerald goes through the motions explaining all the nasty details of the room's history, but that's all just pretext to Enslin. And, he insists, it'll be great publicity for the hotel.

When he enters the room, he quickly determines that it's not so spooky after all. He'll have to figure out a way to embellish to get this thing to sell, right?

Except the room isn't concerned with getting on the front cover of Enslin's next bestseller - it's concerned with Enslin himself. Or maybe it's incidental . . . he just happens to be the one staying in the room tonight, so the room is taking out its aggression on him. What transpires over the next hour is best experienced unexpectedly, as Enslin experiences it. In that respect, it works exceptionally well, in part because Cusack is such a convincing performer, and in part because director Mikael Håfström is able to build atmosphere without doing too much.

The screenplay makes the room a living hell, but an overzealous director could easily have blown it all out of proportion. Håfström shows just the right amount of energy and just the right amount of restraint. The best moments come in small bursts; the sound design is one area that deserves particular kudos. While the film under-utilizes the neighboring rooms of the hotel - which come to be very important to Enslin's psyche, but are then quickly tossed to the side - and while one significant twist is foreshadowed far too obviously, 1408 is an intelligently crafted exercise in style. I've read a lot of King, but not the collection of stories this one comes from; I have no idea how or if the film strays from the source material. But with movies like Thinner unfortunately bearing his name, King has to be a bit more happy with this one.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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