At The Picture Show
Cusack and Co. do right by Stephen King with the chilling '1408'
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
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